In scenes reminiscent of the Book of Acts tribal religious leaders in remote north eastern Mozambique are enthusiastically telling their people the greatest news that has ever reached their region — the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Remarkably, these leaders, who previously followed a local religion, are sharing the gospel by reading Scripture to people in their own Mwinika tongue. Until recently, not only were the Scriptures not available in Mwinika but the language itself had never been written down.
When the two missionary families who brought the gospel to the region arrived six years ago they were the first white people seen by locals since many years before when a Portuguese colonial census official was carried there on a sedan chair. The missionary women and children are the first white women and children that the locals have seen. When the Hattingh family from South Africa and the Henderson family from the United States arrived in 2005 there was not even a road in the swampy, crocodile-infested wilderness that some 250 000 Mwinka people call home. The local currency was salt which was made in the marshes and used to barter for fish, nuts, cassava and rice. In the last few years outside goods such as motorcycles, cellphones and solar panels have started to make an appearance.
I met Francois and Nadia Hattingh and their three children recently when they spent some family time with Francois’ parents in Port Elizabeth. Francois and Nadia both sensed a call into missionary service when they were still teenagers and they worked as missionaries in urban areas of Mozambique for the better part of seven years before they responded to a call to join New Tribes Missions (NTM) and work among an unreached people group.
Nadia said that they had sensed God giving them absolute freedom to choose to return to South Africa or to go north and work among unreached people.
“We decided that we had one life to live and we wanted to live the fullest into something we felt had eternal value,” she said.
Francois and Nadia spent a year in England undergoing specialised NTM cross cultural training in preparation for the challenges ahead, including how to learn an unwritten language.
When the Hattinghs and Hendersons finally arrived in Monigaland they told the local people they wanted to live with them, to learn their language and culture, to write down their language, to translate God’s word into their language, and to teach God’s word to them.
The Mwinika people, who followed a religion which combined a Middle Eastern religion and African traditional beliefs, asked the newcomers about their religion. They responded that they were followers of Jesus the Messiah who was mentioned in their own religious teachings.
“They weren’t sure what to think of us as they didn’t really have a box to put us in” said Francois. “It was more a case of ‘We’ll see what you do’ and it helped that we consistently did what we said we would do.”
The Mwinika people were very interested in the missionaries’ offer to make God’s word directly accessible to them in their “heart language” and helped them to build traditional wattle and daub homes and taught them their language and culture.
Nadia said the locals appreciated that they were the first outside people who had ever wanted to live with them and they accepted them completely as members of the community, even taking them to “hair-raising” ceremonies conducted by witchdoctors.
“We never opposed their religion and we never tried to impose a different religion,” she said.
During the next five years Nadia and Helen Henderson worked on developing a written form of the Mwinika language beginning with identifying and developing suitable symbols for the sounds . To the delight of the local people they began to write these symbols in the sand.
Once a NTM consultant confirmed that they had reached the required level of language proficiency in Mwinika, Francois and Phil Henderson, with input from some of the locals, began the painstaking job of translating scripture and developing Bible lessons covering core teachings from Genesis to Christ.
During all of this time the Hattingh and Henderson children, who were the same age, were home-schooled by their parents. The Hattingh children speak Afrikaans at home, but also speak English (with an American accent), Portuguese and Mwinika.
After nearly five years the missionaries told the local religious and tribal leaders that they were ready to start the first series of Bible lessons which spanned the period from pre-creation to the ascension of Jesus, revealing God’s character, man’s situation, man’s need for a redeemer and the promised redeemer. The local leaders decided on the teaching venue — under a large cashew nut tree; and the timing of the lessons — four afternoons a week over five months.
On average 80 people, including local leaders, attended the teachings each day. The results have been amazing. Francois said that hardly was the last lesson completed that their neighbour, a respected local religious leader, announced that he, together with five other leaders, was setting out to preach the gospel throughout the region. For 40 days he and his colleagues preached through the night, every night in different local religious meeting places.
“You cannot believe the change in his eyes. They were sparkling and excited as he said he was going to teach the truth because God has now revealed himself for the first time in their language,” said Nadia.
“I have heard him say to others: ‘We are not going to do things the way we used to any more. The way we did things was because we didn’t know better. “
In other changes, local religious leaders no longer want to recite their old Middle Eastern religious writings at funerals, people no longer pray to ancestors, and people are showing much more kindness and consideration to each other than before.
But Francois and Nadia say the work has just begun. There is still much scripture to be translated and many more lessons to be developed and taught. They say it will take at least another 10 to 15 years to complete this work and bring the young Monigaland church plant to a place of maturity and self sufficiency.