It was an uphill battle when literacy work began in the 1980s in the Ifè language group.
Literacy rates among the people were at 5%, very few churches existed and there was little interest in literacy classes. Because these classes helped people read Scripture, traditional chiefs strongly opposed them, feeling their spiritual leadership and power was threatened. Sometimes the literacy coordinators and supervisors were even chased away from the villages! But God continued to open doors.
A 70-year-old Ifè man testified, "I spent my life as the spiritual leader of the traditional deity Dadoumè. I learned to read and write Ifè through the Ifè literacy program. I became a literacy teacher and have taught classes for several years now. Even though I wasn't a Christian, I attended the dedication of the Ifè New Testament in October 2009. I bought a copy which I carefully kept in my room, and got into the habit of reading a few verses of Scripture in Ifè each morning before going out.
"One day, someone asked me why I was so attached to my Ifè New Testament. I responded, 'My dear children, this book is a book of wisdom and of wealth for all of life.' Having learned of this exchange, the Christians [in my village] became motivated to pray for me. To their great joy, the Lord finally won my heart and, in 2013, I gathered the village authorities together to tell them, 'Please name another person to be in charge of Dadoumè, for I now want to follow Jesus instead of this deity.'
"And that is how, by the grace of the Lord and through the Ifè literacy program, I gave myself to Christ, and I serve him today with all my heart."
While working in West Africa, JeDene has focused on coming alongside her African colleagues, giving them the support and training they need to minister to their people. Today most Ifè villages not only have their own primary schools which were started by parents who participated in that initial literacy push, but almost all have their own churches. This year, over 6,000 adults are taking literacy classes!
Literacy Is the Foundation for Discipleship
Without Bible translation, many people may never hear the Good News of Christ in a language and form they clearly understand. But without literacy, many people may never grow in the knowledge of the gospel and apply it to their churches or lives. “Literacy is crucial for discipleship,” JeDene said.
In Burkina Faso, JeDene led a workshop to develop materials for three languages to help people transition from reading French to reading their own languages. After a class transitioning from French to Lyélé, one woman said, “I know how to read and write in French. I signed up for this class to learn to read and write in Lyélé — more specifically, the Word of God. I also want, through this time of learning, to improve my oral expression in Lyélé. Knowing these things will help me improve my way of presenting and announcing the gospel. I expect to share my knowledge of how to read and write Lyélé with the church.”
“When people can take the Word of God and read it for themselves, they can more easily discern what someone else is saying,” JeDene noted. “The more people [who] can read and check Scripture for themselves, the healthier the church will be.”
One Gulma speaker from Togo saw firsthand how powerful understanding Scripture could be in the context of church. "When I didn't know how to read in Gulma,” he said, “I had always thought that everything the pastor said during the worship service was written in the Bible. Ever since I learned to read the New Testament in Gulimancema … I realized that the biblical portions read are shorter than what the pastor spoke on. … I finally understood that the pastor reads ... the Bible passage and then he explains it to us by commenting on the part read."
A Huge Need
Today JeDene is one of just two literacy consultants trying to meet all the needs of Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger!
“In a lot of countries, governments don't care about Bible translation, but they will care about literacy,” JeDene said. “Countries are judged by their literacy rates. We can serve them well by offering literacy.” In addition, many literacy projects lead to community development initiatives, helping the communities in agriculture, clean water, health centers, business and more.
“We desperately need people who are willing to come alongside and fill in gaps [in literacy work], to encourage and give ideas and fresh perspective to our brothers and sisters in Christ who speak these languages,” JeDene emphasized.
Côte d'Ivoire is one country with an enormous need. During recent civil unrest, many literacy materials were destroyed. Thousands of people are still waiting to have literacy classes started and new teachers trained.