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A Cold Glass of Water

Woman sitting weavingCockatoos scream, erupting from a tree in a flurry of white wings. Welcome to Morehead, Papua New Guinea, where the land is flat but the ants build mounds taller than a man, transforming ordinary red dirt into rock-hard towers and spires. The people here are quick to laugh, and they take great pleasure in telling stories.

In a country where much of the land is perpetually wet, the Morehead region is unusual. Beginning in May or June, the rains gradually stop falling. Mud hardens and cracks. Swampy land goes dry, and streams cease to flow. Temperatures soar. Life gets harder. “We adapt,” a school teacher said, her demeanor indicating acceptance of a life she’s always known. During the height of dry season, she will need to walk two hours each way to fetch drinking water for her students.

Yes, the Morehead people know about water, and they know about thirst. But they will tell you that physical thirst is not the only thirst that they know. “Having the Bible only in English,” says one woman, “is like holding a cold glass of water that we can’t drink.”

The people of the Morehead region speak about 11 different – but related – languages. Only one, Arammba, has a Bible translation project in progress. Two Arammba translators are drafting portions of the Scriptures into their language, communicating by e-mail with their adviser in the Netherlands and by shortwave radio with translation teams in other parts of the country.

group of PapuansWhat about all the other languages? The Wára people saw two Wycliffe families come and go, both forced home several years ago by serious illness. The Neme people sent a delegation to a workshop where they developed a tentative Neme alphabet and made a first attempt to translate John 3:16 into Neme. That was years ago now. In 2006, church and community leaders from a Nama-speaking village wrote up a list of people who can help with a translation project, when somebody comes. Leaders in other villages have discussed where translation workshops might be held and whose land could be used to build a translation center. Church leaders from different Christian denominations have agreed to work together, realizing that conflicts could derail a translation program.

New approaches to Bible translation offer many possibilities for the people of Morehead. All the way across the country, for example, translation teams from several related languages meet together three times a year to work on their translations. It’s a project called VITAL – the Vernacular Initiative for Translation and Literacy. By meeting in a central location, mother-tongue translators can receive Biblical teaching and linguistic help from Wycliffe mentors, and they have access to technologies that speed and improve their work.Some leaders in the Morehead area say they’d like to give a project like VITAL a try. Pastors and other leaders want to make sure that their people can drink freely from that “cold glass of water.”

Until someone comes to help them, though, the dry season will continue. “We here, we trust God,” says a pastor’s wife in Mata village. “It’s going to work out.” But today, they wait.

(Story by David Ringer)

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Learn more about other Bibleless People Groups around the world.

David Ringer, author of "A Cold Glass of Water," is a writer and photographer for Wycliffe International. Read more about his journeys in his online blog.

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