Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Excellent and Praiseworthy

Names have been changed for the privacy of those mentioned.

Apart from coming away from West Nepal with more typical Nepali experiences under my belt, and too much to think about concerning struggles with sin and my status as a single women (not that they’re related, but between all the Nepali men talking to me on the buses and listening to no less than five sermons back-to-back on the subject of sin, it was easy to conflate the two prior to hitting the sack late Thursday night upon my return to Kathmandu), this trip profoundly increased my admiration for the work that the Tharu translation team, leaders, and musicians are doing to benefit Tharu congregations.

I guess I never thought before about what it takes to create a Scripture translation. While waiting for the jeep to show up to take us to his village, Shyam patiently answered my questions concerning the translation work he is currently doing. He estimated that it could take between twelve and twenty years to complete the Daugara Tharu translation of the Scripture. One reason is because they are short of manpower—there are three people working on it—and they do a lot of things other than straight translation. As I learned on this trip, Tharu is only just becoming a written language; people speak Tharu but don’t necessarily read and write in it. Not that Tharu has never been a written language—Devanagari, the same alphabet used to write Nepali, Hindi and Sanskrit, is used—people just don’t have a habit of reading and writing in it. The default is to use Nepali. They’ve therefore had to create materials for reading and writing, such as a Tharu grammar and dictionary. For the dictionary, they conducted word collection workshops, where they collected words and wrote down definitions—tedious work, according to Shyam, but necessary. They’ve also had to find ways to promote the use of the Scripture portions they’ve translated. This means creating a simple study for the Gospel of Luke, making recordings of them reading the Scripture for people to listen to as they read along, or simply holding meetings where they read the Scripture aloud, with everyone taking a turn to read a paragraph.

Ram Kumar currently works with a reputed ministry that provides children’s Scripture curriculum and teaching training support all over Nepal. His position requires a lot of travel, which he uses to self promote his songs as a musician as well. Not that he’s full of himself—with Nepali being the dominant language for congregation life, doing it in Tharu is fairly new endeavor and there aren’t that many songs in their own language for fellowships or worship. So he sings and teaches his songs to people as he travels for work, and they in turn teach these to others and use them in fellowships.

A friend of Sunil’s was putting together a Tharu radio program, and needed appropriate songs, but, there were none in existence. So, Sunil borrowed old, traditional tunes from their Tharu culture—festival melodies, ones used for communicating while working in the forest—and wrote lyrics that declared the Good News. These became well received. It put the Gospel “in local clothes,” so to speak. That way, their fellow Tharu would see that they did not follow a foreign God, desiring to advance economically by catering to foreigner’s desires. God is in fact near to them; He speaks their language too.

Ramesh spear-headed a project in his congregation where they decided to studio record a few of the songs members had been writing. These all declared the Gospel to non-believers. They took up offerings to cover expenses, and though they were unable to distribute the recordings on CDs or cassettes, the MP3s have made their rounds. They arrived at Ram Kumar’s congregation, where the youth have used them for “special” songs in fellowship, for Christmas caroling, or to dance to. Doing a studio recording was a considerable learning curve for those involved. They were all from a village and knew nothing about how such a recording was made. The studio personnel were patient with them, and Ramesh had several amusing stories to tell about their experiences. The studio personnel were also flexible with payments; there were several months after the recording work was done where they were still paying the studio for services. Talk about walking by faith and leaving your comfort zone.

“Before I answer you question, I need to give a little history first…” Kumar prefaced his comments with this phrase regularly. The guy was a minefield of information concerning how they began doing fellowship in the Tharu language in the first place and what challenges Tharu believers have faced in regards to their walk. He spoke quietly but had a robust laugh. Re-listening to the recordings I made, my ears get blasted every time he erupts in laughter; the contrast is so stark. First of all, they never prayed or worshiped through song before becoming believers; these were things they had to learn through practice and teaching. Second, because Tharu heard the Gospel first in Nepali, and not their own language, Nepali became a “holy language” for them—they prayed, read scripture, sang, all in Nepali. It was a concept that had to be broken when transitioning to using their own Tharu language. It was hard especially for Tharu leaders to at first realize the importance of using their mother tongue. Kumar related a funny experience when showing the Jesus Film dubbed in Tharu: viewers wanted to know how a Jewish man had come to speak Tharu!

After this trip, I thought of Phillipians 4:8—“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The heart that these men have to see both their fellow brothers and sisters grow in their faith and for more of their people to come to a saving knowledge of grace is truly admirable.