We sat hunched over on goatskins, in a dark, steamy, somewhat smelly hut of sticks and grass and cardboard. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, after coming in from the blazing sun of a Kenyan afternoon. Renee and I sat on either side of the hut, along with some friends, other missionaries and supporters of the work here in Korr. The woman whose house this was sat near the smoldering fire and told her story. I sat on the ground facing her, and next to me a young man was translating. The Rendille language is completely unintelligible to us, and yet I suspect I could have gleaned the message simply from her lively animations and the joyful light in her eyes. It was the story of a changed life. Radically. Beautifully.
For over twenty years a few hearty missionaries have lived here in the desert, among these nomadic people. Their goal was simple if not a massive task. To give the Rendille people the words of God, the Bible. I have four copies right here in my house, like many of us do. Leather bound, compact, with study notes or without, one well worn, some collecting dust. For me, this volume has always been here, and in its commonplace existence has perhaps lost some of its wonder. God, it seems, has always spoken English. (Doesn’t everyone?) What history and missionaries have realized is that for the millions of people without a Bible there is no substitute for it – no calculated outreach or talented preacher that can penetrate the hearts of people and communities like the Word can. And so, there has been a worldwide movement to translate these pages into every spoken language, with hundreds of translations completed, and hundreds to go. A single translation can absorb more than twenty years of effort – an arduous, and sometimes-treacherous task undertaken by people of uncommon fortitude and commitment. Here in Korr, AIM AIR has supported some folks like this, folks who are treading the sand and carrying-on through the journey of learning to speak a foreign tongue, developing a written form for a language without one, literacy classes for the Rendille people in a nomadic classroom of wood beams and grass thatch, and achieving the privilege of writing the timeless words of the Bible into an old, and yet new language. And these words, in Rendille as in any language, are powerful.
With one hand she played out the story as she told it. With the other she beat a rock next to the fire. “We Rendille are like this stone. We are hard, stubborn. We will not listen. You come from the outside with your ideas about God, and we will say, you don’t know anything about the Rendille.” She looked up as she spoke (again that light in her eyes,) “I went to the literacy class so I could graduate, and maybe get a goat. I began to learn to read. What we were reading was the book of Mark, and then I realized that God was speaking to me… God was speaking Rendille.” Her story continued as her hands moved to cover her heart. We learned that the Bible lessons in the literacy classes spoke to her heart, and in some way God changed her heart… which of course, was evident in her eyes. Mine welled up a bit, and maybe it was just the smoke, but I remember flying a few of the boxes in for the dedication service, the translation of Mark, some time back. They were thin, little books. Printed quite economically. Unattractive. I caught a glimpse of her green paperback now. It was tattered, bent over backwards, bloated from a soaking and wrinkled from the drying out. Obviously used, and probably clutched to her chest a time or two. I did not readily imagine those books to such an end when I carried them in my airplane – that they might come to settle in an obscure, dark hut someplace or explode in the blazing light of a heart reborn.
In the blazing sun of the following day we joined the Rendille for another dedication, a massive celebration of the newly translated book of John, and John’s letters – Another little paperback with a punch. A large procession of colorful men and women, singing out, carried the books to center stage and the community packed in under a structure of frayed tarpaulins to receive them. For hours they sang and gave speeches, read portions of this new wonder, and created drama skits from the ancient text. I took a lot of pictures. She is there in many of them, leading the songs or giving her testimony yet again. And even in the pictures there is that light in her eyes. What’s in a word? In the Word? Apparently, something amazing.