The Bible in the Dogon language

A few weeks' ago, we heard from Liz Olsen, our mission partner in Mali, that the first consignment of Bibles in the Dogon language had arrived.

We asked Liz to tell us more about the people who are receiving the Bible in their "heart language" for the first time.

The Dogons live in Mali, around the impressive Bandiagara escarpment, not far from the border with Burkina Faso. There are also some Dogons in Burkina Faso. They are farmers, growing millet (the staple diet) sorghum and rice. They also grow onions as a cash crop.

Traditionally they follow African Traditional Religion and many still practice this. Their sacred places can be seen all around the area. They are well known for their masked dancers who dance, traditionally, for funerals, but also, more recently, for tourists.

Dogons have been resistant to Islam in the past, although Mali is a Muslim country, but with a secular government. More recently some Dogons have embraced Islam, and others, since Missionary work started in the 1920s, have become Christians. Now the three religions exist side by side.

A New Testament was translated in the 1930s and 40s. It had various problems so a whole new Bible was planned with SIL (Wycliffe Bible Translator’s sister organisation) being invited to work on it.

An SIL team went in to the language area in 1980 and by 1981 Liz Olsen from St Mary’s had started language learning and preliminary linguistic studies on the language. Translation of the New Testament started in 1984 by a team composed of two Dogon men and the two SIL women. It was completed in 1994 and published in 1996. Copies were sold out relatively quickly. It has been widely used in Dogon churches. Hosanna (Faith comes by Hearing) came and did a dramatic recording of the whole New Testament for non-readers (and others) to use in listening groups. These recordings have been well used and there are stories of Christian women inviting non-Christian neighbours to the listening groups and of conversions resulting.

The Old Testament translation started in the late 1990s, with a team composed of one SIL member and two Dogon men. After a few years the SIL member left the team and the two Dogon men, both well trained by then, continued alone. The Old Testament was completed by 2008 and published as a whole Bible, together with the New Testament which underwent a few revisions. The first printed copies of the whole Bible reached the Dogon area in February 2011. The rest of the consignment is expected in May 2011.

St Mary’s involvement in the Dogon Bible has been through Wycliffe missionary Liz Olsen. She became a link missionary in 1987 after attending the church while taking a study programme at London University. St Mary’s has faithfully supported Liz, and through her, the Dogon New Testament translation. Since Liz’s move to serve Bible translation in Kenya St Mary’s has continued to support her and to pray for the Dogon people and the Old Testament translation. The church has, therefore, played a vital role in bringing the Word of God to the Dogon people in a language they can understand well: their own mother tongue.