First complete Wolof Bible translation delivers God’s word to millions
Pastor & writer
Alaaji*, who abandoned his identity as a Muslim spiritual leader to follow Jesus, now shares Scripture across Senegal so that all may gain the faith that comes from God’s word.
For years now, Alaaji has only had individual books of the Bible, such as Luke or Acts, to share. Still, he takes dozens and dozens of copies of whatever he has to disciples around the nation of 17 million.
“The Scripture is getting out, and people are coming to faith,” Deb. M* said. “I don’t even know if he knows all the people that have been touched with God’s word in the past couple of years.”
The potential of fruit from Alaaji’s labors may significantly increase: a team of global workers from several ministries finished a Bible translation in April. For the first time, scholars and creators used Arabic script and the nation’s most common language to share the whole counsel of God with Senegalese.
“When we take the Wolof Bible and transliterate into the Arabic script, then they can read it and understand,” Deb M said. “They understand it because they’re reading Arabic letters, but it’s the Wolof language.”
How does this translation connect with the people?
Deb and her husband Brad have been part of the team helping with the translation. They’ve served as part of Converge’s Metro SenWest initiative for decades so that the least-reached Muslims in Senegal find their way into the kingdom of God’s son.
All 66 books of God’s word in Wolof with an Arabic script are in the hands of a South Korean printer. Production of the new Bibles starts later this year.
A Bible entirely in Wolof will be essential for making disciples among the least-reached Wolof people. Approximately 80 percent of Senegal’s 17 million people speak that language.
This translation is intentionally written in a common form of Wolof, such as that used by farmers, fishermen and traders. Mashburn and others said this version of the Wolof language has the highest utility throughout the country.
The translation’s eternal power started 60 years ago
In 1960, the Senegalese obtained independence from France and the new country’s leaders chose to offer citizens freedom of religion. Therefore, mission organizations were able to send Christ’s servants in to share his love with the millions living there.
Eric Church of the Open Brethren in England initiated disciple-making in Senegal two years later. He had linguistics training and began translating the Scriptures for the indigenous people.
Marilyn E* joined the effort alongside Church and devoted Wolof disciples several years later. Over the decades, Church died without finishing the work, as did his indigenous colleagues Magatte Fall, his son Mbengue Fall and Mamadou Diop.
Both Falls and Diop knew Wolof, French and English. They also had to learn Hebrew and Greek, plus professional principles of translation. When Diop died, his son continued the work as Mbengue Fall did after Magatte Fall died.
“There’s a lot of people that are involved,” Deb said.
The new translation will create less resistance in Muslim minds
Now, nearly 60 years later, the results of all that hard work are making Christ known among the least-reached people group.
The completed Bible will publish on a website before the physical copies made in South Korea arrive in Senegal. The Scriptures will also be available on a phone app that utilizes a Latin or Arabic script.
That’s important because, if it’s in Arabic script, Muslims will push back less against people reading a book, Deb M* added.
“They see Christianity as a foreign religion, so when you read the Scripture using foreign script, then it’s obvious,” she explained. “If you open up the Scripture, and it’s in Arabic letters, they assume you’re reading the Koran or holy Islamic writings. So you can openly be reading the Bible, and if it’s in Arabic script, they are assuming that it’s a holy book.”
Deb M and her husband, Brad, are also working on an adaptation of the completed Bible. This version would utilize a form of Wolof commonly spoken by people ages 15-35. Urban Wolof, as this dialect is known, has shorter sentences, simpler words and different sentence structures.
Offering an adaptation of the Wolof Scriptures in a format more like the storytelling culture of the people will help more people hear God’s word and understand it.
Alaaji would have never encountered God’s truth and grace if not for severe, debilitating headaches. Painful, wretched headaches in his twenties wreaked havoc in his life.
He’d studied the Koran since he was four, yet the misery brought spiritual openness to his heart. During this hardship, a friend encouraged Alaaji to go to a Christian pastor and ask for help from the God of the Bible.
Alaaji went, even though he was an imam, and the prayers worked for a time. When the headaches returned, he went back to that pastor. This time, the elders and the pastor said they wouldn’t pray unless Alaaji chose between Jesus and Islam.
As he considered what to do, the elders and pastor clarified Alaaji must cut off the amulets he wore, a sign of folk beliefs mixed with Islam. Unless he removed those signs of faith in Allah and tribal spirituality, the pastor wouldn’t pray to Jesus for Alaaji to be healed.
The headaches were so severe, Deb M* explained, that Alaaji would do whatever it took. So he cut off the amulets. Then, the pastor and elders prayed until Alaaji* healed completely.
From then on, Alaaji committed to following the God who healed him, even as family, friends, and others in Senegal eventually rejected him.
A mobile ministry to make God’s word known
In the past several years, he’s built other relationships with imams because he’s so well educated and articulate, Deb M said. As a result of that, an imam has trusted Christ in one of those towns.
He travels across the country to deliver boxes and boxes of Scripture in Arabic script so those who receive the word that can save their soul, whether imam, folk believer or atheist.
This past December, Alaaji had over 100 boxes of Bibles to distribute. He wanted his 72 disciples in the far east of Senegal to have the gospels. So he visited them, and now all 72 believers have Luke and Acts because he went and distributed all of those scriptures.
It won’t be much longer until Alaaji shows up with a whole Bible those Christ-followers can read, for the first time, in Wolof using Arabic script.
“Having God’s word available is critical for the maturing of the church, for evangelizing and the transformation of God’s people,” Deb M said. “We can’t do this without having God’s word available. I think it’s critical for people to have God’s word in their hands and know how to read it, study it, and share it in order for the church to be well established and able to grow.”
Converge is asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group — in our generation. Learn how we play a role in accomplishing the Great Commission and how you can be involved.
*Name changed for security reasons
Ben Greene, Pastor & writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.