In the beginning, missionaries drove to Nyanza palace, currently southern province for an important request where his Majesty the King of Rwanda was the only person with authority to help.
They told the king that they had a big project of making the Holy Bible accessible to the Rwandan community; translation into vernacular language – Kinyarwanda.
“We would like your Majesty to get us someone from your kingdom who can help us achieve this noble mission,” they said.
The king accepted but history is silent as to how long it took His Majesty to do the search in a country where Western Education was novice, but at least one name is known.
“The king found some people. I don’t know how many, but the most known is one Rukeribuga. They took him for training in Uganda and then the United Kingdom to master English,” says Pastor Michael Gasare, Marketing and Communication Manager at the Bible Society of Rwanda.
To cut a long story short, Rukeribuga was very much helpful back home; the missionaries could preach and Rukeribuga translated accurately.
From that setup, missionaries and Rukeribuga managed to work together and they involved several other Rwandans to get the first version of the Holy Bible in scritta paper which we know in different versions and editions today.
In fact in Rwanda, the Four Gospels were available in Kinyarwanda in 1904 while the New Testament was ready by 1936.
In 1957, the project of translating the Holy Bible in Kinyarwanda was complete. That very year, the missionaries presented it to the local churches, becoming a local property.
Worldwide, the Holy Bible is a book that today drives the lives of billions of people called Christians- those who believe in Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
It is a book millions of people love to curse or to kiss, the book people interpret in different ways though it has its real meaning in each and every verse.
Many Christians confess that the Bible changed their lives for better and gave them solace in this world and assurance to live a new, much better and eternal life after death.
While its trip to Rwanda was summarised in a couple of paragraphs above, a lot happens for a community of Christians or wholesomely, the Church, body of Christ to have their own bible that suits their understanding and their culture.
But to understand this journey, it is important to first have an idea how it all started for the world to get the bible in current format which is also serving the basis for digital versions.
An Important Meeting in the UK
General information could probably help us to understand the context and the whole idea of the bible first and foremost.
As we see it going digital today, the bible was initially written using the technology of that moment.
Materials for writing, before Christ, included clay, wood, and slate tablets, that’s where our IT tablet comes from. Romans used them.
Then we had parchment, which is skin from goats, calf…Vellum which was much used, was skin from calf skin.
History has it that we had the first bibles written on papyrus scrolls. And, it is important to note that the Bible’s original version was in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.
The first printing press was invented by Yohannes Gautenberg in Mainz, what is now Germany, in 1450, he had begun experimenting while a political exile in France, Strasbourg, in 1440. He returned to Mainz and the first machine was invented by him in 1450.
He started an attempt to print the bible, but at first, printing could not do much to help Christians get the bible, because basically, they were overwhelmingly expensive. The papyrus manuscripts scrolls continued to serve.
According to Rwanda Bible Society’s Gasare, the history of the Bible we have today could be traced in 1804, when the church leaders in England met to discuss how the Bible could be accessible to the community of believers.
“There had been a big issue; the number of Christians was increasing, while the bible scrolls were deficient,” he said.
At that era, said Gasare, reading the bible was difficult; one needed to take for example the scroll of John, read it and return it for the next reader to access, and so on and so forth.
It is obvious that all people do not read with the same speed. One would need the scroll of Mathew or Isaiah only to find that the first borrower had not yet returned it to church.
According to Gasare, the scroll of Zachariah is known to have had many copies, thus, it was relatively more accessible than the rest.
Back to the UK meeting, it created the First Bible Society in the world. It was a non-profit organization, non denominational in makeup devoted to translating, publishing and distributing the bible at an affordable price.
“Since the origins, the bible society means unity of all christian local churches that come together to make the bible accessible. The bible does not belong to a church. A church can choose this version or the other, but no Christian church owns its bible,” Gasare indicates.
The UK bible society set the pace for others, but, it also contributed to their creations through missionaries and evangelization across the world.
“Once in any country, missionaries would take locals for training in England, to learn English, then the three languages of the original versions of the Bible so that they can translate it in their native language,” Gasare said.
“Those trained are given a mandate to translate the bible in their mother tongue.”
There are now 178 bible societies in the world which work together under the United Bible Societies Organisation.
An expensive Work but Worth the Cost
For a bible to be translated into a vernacular language, quite a lot of work takes place.
In the first place, for those who think that the Roman Catholic Church does it alone, the pentecostal and protestant churches alone and the Adventist church alone need to visit the Bible society of their country to understand how any bible of any Christian community is produced under one roof, by one same team coordinated by one person.
As earlier mentioned, the first initiative to translate the bible for the benefit of a given community of believers is supported or largely involves missionaries who then hand over the bible to the local church under the custodianship of the bible society.
However, according to Gasare, given the evolution of society and its language, the culture, churches propose to the Bible society of their country to provide specific versions whenever the need arises.
The versions can be for the adult christians in general, the youth, the children, and so on.
The Bible society of Rwanda has actually started translation of the Bible for the persons with disability-vision and audition.
Translation, said Gasare, involves quite a lot of work.
“When the need arises, we request the churches to find people who would help us. And trust me, they find the best; some happen to bring a church member from the diaspora.”
And every decision to translate the bible starts with deep research. To explain how the process starts, Gasare used an example of the Holy Bible with explanations(Bibiliya Yera ifite ibisobanuro).
After realising that several other languages had the bible explained, the Rwandan community also started research to have theirs explained.
“For every activity in the bible to take place, research is necessary to confirm whether the new input is needed by the Christian community,” he said.
After research, the General Assembly composed of the catholic church, dioceses and all other members gather and the Bible Society presents the findings.
When church leaders confirm the research, they give the Bible Society authorisation to seek sponsorship in and outside the country for the bible to be written in accordance with the need that was identified in the research.
They care about every other detail in this research, including the color of the cover.
“There is nothing we decide at our level here. Christians may tell us we need a bible coated with gold, with read cover, and so on…we follow their suggestions.”
At this level, they also start looking for human resources; linguists, experts in Theology, Historians, all in accordance with the protocol that was endorsed by the General Assembly to guide operations in bible translation.
Candidates on all positions are proposed by members of the bible society and submitted to a test.
The candidates present their CVs, their degrees, a recommendation letter from their church, referees, quite like in other job applications.
The selected candidates are put to a training of bible translation, before embarking on a job that takes between 2.5 to 4 years to be completed.
Something is very interesting in this translation; though Rwanda has a bible translated in Kinyarwanda, none in Rwanda can have access to its soft copy, none can modify anything from it.
This means that, even if there was a need to add a dot(.) that was forgotten here or there, the ten bishops of the Anglican Church, nine bishops from the Catholic Church, Apostles Yoshua N. Masasu and Paul Gitwaza among other church leaders would gather in a general assembly.
Besides this, accessing the software for further work involves another process.
“All the bibles that were made are kept in a technology called Digital Bible Library(DBL). And the tool that helps to access the DBL to get a given bible version, is called Natanael,” said Gasare.
According to Gasare, Nathanael brings the bible into Paratext, the App that enables translation.
There is only one person in Rwanda who has a code to access this soft copy – Pastor Gasare.
“It belongs to the department that I head to get this job done,” Gasare who has been coordinating these activities for the last 12 years told KT Press.
This translation includes a lot of consultation between team members.
The printing: the powder of submarine animals and Gigantic Tree
After translation, the printing of the bible itself is another long process.
According to Gasare, Bible societies work with very big printing companies in Korea, China, USA, Latin America and Europe.
“Our main choice is China and South Korea,” Gasare said.
Korea prints the version called Bibiriya Yera while China’s AMITY printing has become the best Rwanda’s choice for Bibiriya Ntagatifu.
Scandinavian countries mainly print the children’s version.
“You see, the bible is a big book. It requires really thin but strong paper; the paper comes from a specific category of seashore trees that have a very long life and strong skin of several animals from the ocean mixed with several other products,” said Gasare.
“They grind the two raw materials and mix their powder which is processed to make a strong thin paper.”
The paper is made by a specific machine while the letters are also printed by high tech machines and special ink.
“The machine has a technology to write on both sides and however much the paper is transparent, you never see the content of the next page when you are reading.
“All that makes the bible quite expensive. The bible is among the best reader-friendly books.”
In Rwanda, every year 140,000 up to 150,000 bibles reach the community.
The bible cost between 5000 to 15,000 depending on the version.
“But when you consider the real cost, we spend some Rwf 50,000 on the bible that we give out at Rwf 5000,” according to Gasare.
Some versions go up to Rwf 100,000 in real cost.
The printing cost is largely covered by contributions of the 29 church members of the Bible Society of Rwanda and foreign donors. However, as for foreign donors, their money does not go on the accounts of the Bible Society-they transit to the printery.
The ‘Discriminatory’ Words of the Bible
Bible critics in Rwanda have always urged that there are words in the Bible that discriminate against the persons with disabilities among others.
Gasare says that first of all, the bible is a result of the need of a given society and they are the ones who give the correct words during research that they conduct.
That’s why for example, the word Uruzabibu may change to Amasaka in the future, would the society of that time say that “uruzabibu” is strange to them.
In fact, after printing, a team reads the latest version for nearly one year before submitting it to the members who also give feedback pending the final approval by the General assembly of the bible society of Rwanda.
For the rest, he said, before any translation, the Bible society collaborates with Rwanda’s Academy of language and culture.
“In our translation, a word may have a spiritual meaning, rather than a meaning that people want to suggest it has got. In that context, it belongs to the preacher to explain. However, when we find that a given word indeed belongs to the category that the people suggest, we conduct research and that word can be changed,” he said.
That would partly explain the reason why Rwanda has for example a version of Bibiriya Ijambo ry’Imana or Biriya mu Kinyarwanda cy’iki Gihe.
Meanwhile, the Bible Society of Rwanda is working hard to sustain the work to avail the bible. As donor money is reducing, their thinking is that a side business would help.
It is also working hard to face the hackers who mainly bring fake Bible Apps.
They are convinced however, that none will ever manage to hack the core Bible itself because “it is highly protected by smart admins virtually and on disks that can never be accessed.
While Rwandans have the bible in their mother tongue, some societies in the world are still doing the work Rukeribuga and co did 100 years ago.
Those are countries like Somalia and South Sudan which have barely finished their new testament through the patronage of Kenya and Uganda Bible Societies respectively.