Written by Emily Cole
Air quickly inflated my lungs as I gasped at the view from atop “internet mountain,” one of the few hills high enough to get cell phone reception in this coastal Tanzanian village, and tried to identify the few houses and buildings I could see nestled in-between gangly palm trees. Beyond the rolling hills, the Indian Ocean glimmered under the afternoon sun. From this view, it was clear why the villagers are called “the Hill People.” There was not one piece of flat ground between me and the horizon.
The village looked so peaceful, but once I stepped off the mountain and into the center of town, I would be surrounded by women covered from head to toe in brightly colored fabrics, who carried a baby strapped to their back and a heavy load atop their head, walking gracefully through town while they chatted with their friends and led their children home. All the while, the men watched from where they sat discussing the political state of Tanzania.
I knew there must be women in this community who could be my friends, and not just the kind that you chat with in passing, but someone I could really know. Every woman in the village goes by Mama Something, the something being one of their kids’ names. It seemed bizarre to me that I couldn’t know the given names of my neighbors, but they didn’t think it odd at all. In fact, when I met someone new they’d ask, “You’re Mama who?”
“Nope, just Emily.” I responded each time. The puzzled expressions on their faces told me I was the anomaly.
I began praying and hoping for a friend I could call by her first name. I wanted that intimacy with someone.
At that same time, my TIMO team was praying that God would build His church by people reading the Bible in their own homes. The ten of us arrived from all over the United States and Tanzania eager to make disciples within this unreached people group. We envisioned villagers studying the Bible with us in home groups and slowly growing into a local body of believers.
We had lived in the village for eight months when it became very clear to me that there was no way I could read Scripture meaningfully with someone. The team only owned Swahili Bibles because the heart language of the people was still unwritten. Compounding the problem, the literacy rate in the village is 50% or less for women. Those that can read don’t spend much time reading. They have plenty of other necessary tasks, like farming, cooking, and washing clothes, to fill their day without having to track down a book.
Right before our first Christmas in the village, I met with my team leader, Colin, to discuss all the reasons it was impossible for me to read the Bible with someone. I explained the illiteracy among women, my inability in Swahili, and how my language study hadn’t advanced enough to discuss a Bible passage even if I read it in English. He listened and told me we would pray about it and see how God responded. We knew God wanted these people to know Him and glorify Him. We knew that God continually pursues people. But amidst all my deficiencies, I just couldn’t see how God could or would work through me.
That first December, we got the Christmas story in the local language from the catechist of the local Catholic congregation. He came well studied and prepared to tell us the story in his heart language. We all sat with our voice recorders pointed towards him, ready to catch every rise and fall of the story. Throughout the day, the first big rain of the season pounded on the metal roof, leaving us with time to think through the story. The musical quality of the language and the richness of his voice enhanced each part of it. My teammates sat on grass mats, wobbly wooden stools, and precarious chairs inside the mud house, and I studied their reactions. Everyone’s eyes remained focused entirely on the storyteller, some with their mouths open in amazement. As the angels announced the birth of the Savior, my eyes filled with tears, and I relished hearing the gospel told in this language. This was how God would grow His church and bring this people into His Kingdom.
My team and I worked hard to learn the story and over the next couple weeks, I spent time practicing the foreign words so I could share the story with my neighbors. One day, I walked through town and spotted a woman I greeted often, but didn’t know well. Everyday, I saw her inside her shop behind piles of sugar, flour, rice, and beans, quietly measuring quantities on her scale. Clothes, pangas, belts, and kitenges hung from the ceiling and obscured the view of the motorcycle batteries, balloons, and drinks piled on the back shelves. After our usual greeting, I lingered, and she came out from behind the counter and gestured for me to join her on a wooden bench under the shade of her porch.
I soon exhausted my list of conversation topics and asked if she would like to hear a story in her language. She smiled at the question and I dug out my notebook to read her the Christmas story. She listened attentively, correcting my pronunciation when necessary. She enjoyed it, even though my nerves caused me to stutter and fumble more than usual.
When I finished, she asked if I had any more stories in her language. I didn’t, but told her I had the Bible in Swahili. She immediately asked me to come back so she could hear another one. She planned to teach me how to tell the stories in her language.
The next afternoon, I arrived at her shop, enthusiastic to begin. By this point in the day, the men who drank her local brew had over-indulged, so she carried two stools to the other side of the porch, next to her sister, Asha’s restaurant. First, I tried to hand the Bible to her so she could read and I could write the translation.
“Oh, I can’t read,” she said, pushing away the book. “You have to read the Swahili to me and then I’ll tell you the words in my language.”
Hmm…This was going to be a little more difficult than I envisioned. I had no faith in my ability to read Swahili fluidly, but I set about the task anyway. There was nothing else to do.
I stumbled through, sentence by sentence, and she calmly and quietly told me each sentence in her language. Sometimes she mumbled under her breath so quietly I could barely make out what she said. She waited while I jotted down each word in my little book. We began working our way through Jesus feeding the five thousand. Women and children started to gather around us. Over my shoulder, the drunks quieted their slurred ramblings. No one said a word. Even the children were quiet as they soaked in the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes.
My friend gained confidence, and her voice grew stronger as we worked through the story. At a tricky section, the other women offered suggestions to improve the translation. We finished and my friend got up to leave. The other women also gathered their things and ushered their children home, but one woman, Asha, lingered, quietly watching me.
“Let’s do another one,” she urged.
And so, at Asha’s request, the two of us kept going and worked through the story of Jesus walking on water. Painstakingly, I read each phrase and sentence. She stuttered through the translation, repeating it until she was content with her rendition and I had successfully copied it into my notebook. Asha wanted to keep going, but translating Jesus as the Bread of Life seemed a bit too daunting for our first meeting, so I decided to quit while I was ahead.
I began going to Asha’s restaurant two or three times a week. Invariably, she would ask to read, and we would work through a story from one of the gospels. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to come because she wanted to hear the stories or because she wanted a friend. I wasn’t sure which was more important to me either.
God chose to answer my two prayer requests with one person. I found a friend in Asha and began regularly “reading” Scripture with her in her home. Sometimes her sisters joined us. Other times the drunk guys who hung out on her porch contributed.
God showed me that He is able to do immeasurably more than all I ask or imagine and that He will glorify Himself in the church and in Christ Jesus despite my inadequacies. He desires to bring this unreached people group to Himself, but He also loves His children enough to bring me a friend who isn’t called Mama so-and-so.