Thursday, July 23, 2009


I wrote recently about how the Rendille language is now a written language. Of course, it really doesn’t do any good to have a language written down if nobody can read it. That’s where literacy classes come in.

Over the midterm break, I decided to take advantage of a weekday with no school and head out to one of the classes for a visit. I have the books and know some of the teachers, but I’ve never seen a class in progress, so I found out where the truck came by and headed out.

After waiting by the side of the road with some Rendille mamas headed home from town with their bags of charcoal and small packets of tea and sugar, the truck arrived and I jumped on, eager for a ride out to the goobs. The back was full of people, as this regular run out to Saalle and Tubcha, two clan villages quite a ways out, in part serves as a Rendille bush taxi. The truck heads out every afternoon to take the literacy teachers to their classes, but the more people they can help out on the way, the better.

When we arrive at Saalle, Aabanna and Nangoyanna - the literacy teachers – and I hop off and walk towards a big acacia tree in the distance. The class takes place there in the shade under the tree. The only hint that this is our classroom is the piece of board painted black that rests in the branches. The students are already gathered – mamas and their babies, and three men off to one side, sitting on their three legged stools.

Aabanna takes down the blackboard and writes the date as two babies play in the dirt behind me. I greet everyone, introduce myself, and tell them that I’m learning Rendille and I want to see a literacy class. I sit down and the lesson begins.

We start with math. There are eight questions written on the board now – two digit adding without carrying – and the class is copying them down. I set to work, too, and write the problems in my notebook. I smile as I write down the answers, happy to play the student and see some of what goes on in a literacy class. Aabana then sees that I’m done, so he takes my book and marks it for me. Eight out of eight, it says, and he writes “Weyti haagisse!” on my paper. “Very well done!” When I get my book back, I look at the lady sitting beside me, who has seen that I’m finished already. She is not even finished copying the questions down, and I feel bad. Of course I can do this quickly – I’ve had twenty five years of practicing how to read and write and copy and calculate. I make a mental note to just go really slowly from now on.

I look around and see that each student has a little bag that the carry their notebooks in – most have the face of either Winnie the Pooh or Spongebob Squarepants grinning back at us from their place on the dusty ground. Amid the beads and metal ankle collars and brightly colored fabrics, I see the collision of two very different worlds.

We move from math to health, and although I can’t understand a lot of what Nangoyanna is saying, I realize that, among other things, she is teaching about cholera and how to prevent it and treat it.

After health, the class takes out book five of the literacy series. Today we’re working on the sounds ‘d and ch. We repeat back syllables, write down words, read some pages in the book. They ask me to take a turn leading the syllables part of the lesson, just like the other students, and I flub at first, but then catch on. It’s fun to be part of the class, and everybody claps for me when I’m done. It’s funny, all through the lessons, Aabanna and Nangoyanna keep coming up to me to point out where we are in the book. While the other students speak Rendille, they are just learning to read, but me, I already know how to read, but I just don’t always know WHAT I’m reading! Following along is no problem, but my teachers are so sweet in trying to help me keep up!

As the lessons progress, I look around me. Women are tossing a well used eraser around to share, the men are concentrating, two baby goats wander back and forth, babies play with each other in the sand behind us. A few mamas are nursing as they work. Irballey, one exceptionally keen man in the class, sounds out my Rendille name (Hafareya) and writes it with his finger in the dust.

There is a Bible lesson at the end, and some songs. The Rendille are such enthusiastic singers! I teach the class a song, too – a simple camp song I was able to translate quickly into Rendille. After the lesson, I hear everyone walking away singing it! So cool!

The people in the class are so keen, so excited about learning to read and write in their own language. Literacy is so incredibly popular, and in goobs where there isn’t a class nearby, people are crying for classes to begin there, too. But they weren’t always so popular…


For about fifteen years now (give or take), the Tirrim project has been running adult literacy classes out in the goobs. They learn to read and write, to do maths, learn about health issues for humans and animals, history and government, geography, and Bible. It’s a two year program that covers a lot of material!

Take geography for example. Before you can even get people to understand maps, you have to help them to see that three dimensional, colourful objects can be represented on a flat surface in black and white! There’s absolutely no tradition of writing or drawing, so even that is a big step!

Once that hurdle is over, they look at a simple drawing of the village where they are. Once they understand that places can be represented on paper, they move to a basic map of Korr ‘town.’ They then learn about the surrounding area, then the district, the province, and are eventually shown a map of Kenya. They see where Kenya is in Africa, and then the teachers bring out a globe. Reactions are varied, but they all look in amazement at all that blue…

“But look at all that water!” they say. “There’s so much water! We’ll all drown!”
“Wooooy! There’s all that water in the world? Why doesn’t someone give some to us? Don’t they know we live in the desert and have hardly any water???”
“No, no, no, that can’t be! The water at the bottom will all fall off!”



At first, Nick and Lynne had trouble convincing people to take the class. “Oh, no, we’ve tried to learn to read and write, but we just can’t,” they’d tell them. Well that’s because the government literacy classes were to teach them how to read Kiswahili, and nobody spoke that language. No wonder they couldn’t do it! How can you learn to read in a language you totally don’t know?

“No, no, no, but this isn’t in Kiswahili! These classes are in Rendille!”
“What? No, no no. Rendille is just a silly backward language. No one can read it.”
“You can! Come and see!”

It still took some convincing. “But why would we want to learn to read? We do fine as we are!” They were told about how learning to do math can help avoid being cheated at the shops and how they can learn all kinds of things. They asked the Rendille what kinds of things they would like to learn about, and they were told that, first, they would like to learn about the health of their camels. Then second, about the health of their people.

“Yes! You can learn about all of those things! Come, try!”

For the first classes, they asked for people who were not too old, because the idea was that from the literacy classes, new literacy teachers would be trained. But of course, the older you are, the more honoured you become, so most of the class was made up of old, old men, many of whom were nearly blind!

To get them motivated, the first Rendille reader is much the same as emerging literacy readers back at home – simple, simple sentences that can be understood mostly from the pictures that accompany them. Now, the Rendille are an extremely confident people already (they already know everything, apparently!), but from this first reader, once they felt that they could read, well, look out! They were so excited!

In addition to the literacy books, there have been a number of other books produced in Rendille – books on camel health, Bible basics books, books of Rendille fables… These are around, but only a very few draft copies. There are text books of sorts for the subjects in the literacy classes, too, ready to go, but there has yet to be money to have them typeset and printed. And of course, slowly by slowly, the Rendille New Testament is coming!

One other effect of the popularity of the adult literacy classes is that these newly literate Rendille began begging for education for their children. “They MUST learn to read and write, too!” The pressure began to grow and grow and grow...

Friday, July 10, 2009

When cliches attack

Education in Kenya is largely based on rote memorization. Memorize facts, spit them back. Memorize facts, spit them back. And I have to admit, these kid’s ability to cram information in their heads is phenomenal. But this does not teach them to THINK. Often it doesn’t even teach them to understand.

Not even writing is exempt from this rote memorization. They literally have big books of expressions and proverbs that they memorize and are required to jam into every composition they write. The more clichés, the better. It KILLS me, because I can’t even tell them NOT to do this, because if they don’t have them for their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams (the big exams that determine what kind of secondary school they qualify – HUGE pressure, high stakes exams at the end of primary school), they will be penalized greatly.

And so they memorize, memorize, memorize, and their compositions are hopelessly flowery and often are humourous and rather befuddling because they’ve stuck some proverb in there that has nothing whatsoever to do with what they’re talking about. Here are a few examples of what results when memorization is present without understanding:

The headmaster was as tall as a flagpole and as fat as a pig.

I was so sad because my mother kicked the bucket.

I ran out the door at a speed that would make a snail a champion.

I stood rooted to the ground as if defying gravity.


And, regardless of what the composition is about, it very often begins with waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, washing, a journey, and then one quick paragraph of whatever the event is actually supposed to be. And it’s almost ALWAYS “the day I will remember for the rest of my life.” Even when the story takes place over a week.

Let's see... It was Monday morning when I woke up early, because the early bird catches the worm. It was when the birds were twittering and flying hither and thither from tree to tree. The radiant light of the sun penetrated via my bedroom window and I got out of bed and went off to the frog’s kingdom, because as Englishman says, cleanliness is next to godliness. My mother asked me to help her make breakfast, so without saying a word I went fast and cooked. Time and tide wait for no king. Wow! We had a special breakfast, and I was as happy as a sandboy…

Do you get the picture? (And what on EARTH is a sand boy???) When I had my first batch of exams to mark, at first I thought they were so clever, till I saw whole sentences repeated over and over and over in each composition. My particular favourite is this: “I was as happy as an old woman who just got her dental program renewed before a big feast.”


Here’s a full composition. At least this one was a little bit original – not about finding out that you’re the first person in your class or about getting beaten by the headmaster. This one was cute and made me laugh! The first bit is the story starter that they then had to finish. I kept the grammar and wording, but just corrected the spelling (it’s really hard to purposely type words incorrectly!) What’s your favourite cliché?

All eyes turned towards me as I entered the classroom. Even before I could sit down, someone whispered loudly that…

I heard some words. So I made myself innocent and went and sat on my large brown desk. Then I tried to investigate what was wrong but I could not find anything wrong. But the way I saw it was something funny about me.
So, immediately without wasting time because as Englishman say time and tide waits for no king I looked around. Then I also looked the way I dressed and didn’t trust the sight that greeted my eyes. I was shocked when I saw that I had wore two different socks and shoes which are blue and red. So, I rubbed my eyes to make sure that it was not.
Then I just ignored and sat comfortably. But the pupils didn’t stopped looking at me. So, I thought and even tried to find where to go and dress well but it was late. That time my heart was beating like a West African drum.
Suddenly a bright idea came into my big cylindrical head. I went to some of my friends to help me. So they told me to go to the teacher to ask for permission to go home and dress well. So, I walked in front of the class as I was thin that when I walked it seemed like a walking advertisement for the benefits of unhealthy eating.
My friends and I went to our class teacher who was as old as Bethsheba. So, she told me to go home faster and be back to school after some minutes. So I ran as fast as deer, leaving a dust floating in the air. I reached home faster.
Then my mother went out of our house. She looked at me and was surprised on the way I dressed. Without saying a word I ran into our house and changed my clothes. Then my father who was at tall as a flag post and had teeth as yellow as chocolate and his hair resemble my grandmother’s yard broom went out of the house and told me to go to school faster.
So I returned to school and I was as happy as an old woman who just got her denture program renewed before a big feast to be dressed well again. But I just felt ashame even after dressing well. So, that was when I knew that I was a careless pupil but till that day I became careful and neat. So, that is the day I would never forget in the rest of my life.

If I can help them to see that their writing can be much more creative and interesting withOUT using all these beloved expressions, I’ll be as happy as a king.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


My 'sleepover' took place at the end of March. Yep, I'm a little behind! :)

Most Rendille don’t live in Korr town itself. Rather, they live in the goobs, clan villages scattered around the desert. The huts in each goob (pronounce the word goob with the same “o” sound as in “go”) are arranged in a circle around the outside and on the inside are circular pens made of thorn branches for the animals – sheep, goats, camels. At the very center is another enclosure for the Rendille elders. There there is a fire there that is always kept smoldering, where the elders sit to discuss weighty matters or just talk the hours away.

It’s always so cool to go out to the goobs – I’ll often hitch a ride when Nick and Lynne head out for any number of reasons. Whenever the car comes by, people rush out and suddenly there’s a big crowd of people – mostly children – who all want to say hello.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do while I’m here was to go out and spend the night in a goob – be there when the animals come back at night, sleep in a hut, and get a little glimpse of what life is like for a traditional Rendille.

One of the older ladies at our church is named Khaso, and she is SO fun. She lives in Rongumo, a goob maybe ten kilometers out of town, but if there’s even a HINT of something going on at the church, she will walk in and be there, right in the front row, with a huge smile on her face. Every time she sees me, she greets me, pulling me in close for a cheek to cheek greeting and gives me a big hug. She has had a number of visitors stay with her, and Nick thought that she would be a good person to go stay with. Of course, he asked her if it would be ok if I came and stayed with her one night, and then for a week and a half, every time she saw him she would ask, “Is Hillary coming tonight? No? Ok, tomorrow? The next day? When? When will she come???” We knew it would have to be soon or Khaso might pop!

Friday night turned out to be the night. After school, I came home and Lynne made a stew and some bread to take out (we knew that despite the fact that Khaso has nothing, nothing, nothing, she would have felt obligated to feed us, and we couldn’t let her do that). We also brought tea leaves, milk, and sugar for chai, and a small drum of water. When we were all loaded up, we set out for Rongumo.

We arrived just before sunset, and immediately I was swarmed with kids. They all began signing and so there I stood in the middle of them all for nearly half an hour, unable to move for the dozens of children all around me, catching on to as many words as I could and doing my best to sing along. It was absolute bliss!

I finally tore myself away from the kids and we went into Khaso’s hut, where she made us each a cup of chai. The kitchen is inside the hut, just four stones arranged around a little dug out pit in the dirt – just enough to lay firewood underneath and balance a pot on top. She told us about the drought and how hard it is for people right now, and we talked for nearly an hour (thank goodness for Nick, who could translate for me!). Around 8:30, we gathered in front of the hut – Nick on the man’s side, me, about a bazillion kids, and any other women on the other side. People wandered over from all over the village to hear what Nick had to say – people are always interested in hearing about God, and Nick was eager to try out the most recently translated passage in a public setting. There were probably about forty people gathered – not counting the kids! – and as they all arrived, the kids started singing again. Another solid half an hour of singing (led by one boy who was like the musical version of the energizer bunny – he sang and sang and sang and sang with gusto and at full volume the ENTIRE time), and then we prayed to begin. Indubaayo has come along, too, so she took the passage and began to read.

As she read and as Nick spoke, I looked around me, taking in what I could by the light of the rising moon. I was sitting in front of the hut, little naked Rendille kids leaning on and sitting all over me. At least two little ones had fallen asleep – one slumped against my back, one with her head in my lap. Three different kids held my hand or my arm, and at least two had hands on my feet. One girl sat behind me and played with my hair. To my right was the hut, smoky and earthy. Across from me and to my left were all the people who had come to listen – elders, women, and young unmarried girls. The headgear of the girls tinkled in the breeze and shimmered in the moonlight. All around me were traditional Rendille – beads and staffs and bracelets and smiles. Dominating the starry night was Indubaayo, reading a little bit haltingly, but with a deep love for these people and a beaming smile on her face.

As someone who has had a Bible (or two or three or thirteen) in her house all her life – a simplified one for kids, a version with applications for teenagers, an NIV version, a Living Bible version, a New American Standard version, a King James version, a study Bible version, a Life Application Bible version, a New Testament only version, a “read through the Bible in a year” version – it hit me.

This was new. It was fresh. It wasn’t backed with a “yeah yeah, been there, heard that” kind of attitude. It was brand. new. And it was revolutionary, especially for the Rendille, for whom revenge is a very big part of their existence:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil... Do not take revenge [the Rendille way of saying this is “do not wash blood with blood”], my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (selected verses from Romans 12:14-21)

These people were listening to something in their own language, which has only been written down for about twenty years, read by someone who just a few years ago was completely illiterate. And they were hearing the word of God for the very. first. time in their LIVES.

All I could do was to sit in awe at what was going on around me.

I fell asleep that night on my cowskin on the floor of Khaso’s hut with tears in my eyes. I knew that that night represented something so big, so meaningful, so… GOD. And I got to be there.

Waakh a la koolicho! May God be praised!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Tirrim, part 1: Bible Translation

Every time I think about beginning this post, I am overwhelmed. There is so much to tell, so much to explain. So many things are interconnected that if I start with one area, it’s understanding is dependent on another, and then again dependent on another. Where do I begin? I want to do an adequate job of explaining how truly exciting and - yes, I’ll use this word yet again - amazing the Tirrim project is. So it takes time. Time to understand it myself, time to put all the pieces together, time to collect photos to help bring it alive, time write it all down. But it’s more than time to begin. So where do I begin the story? I suppose I must begin with Nick and Lynne.

Over thirty years ago, Lynne read the following verses from Isaiah 18 that speak of a people “just beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:”

Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers.

The Rendille at the time, and to some extent now, were known for their aggressive revenge campaigns. If another tribe raided them, revenge would be swift and severe. As a result, many neighbouring tribes feared them. And, as someone trying to learn as much language as she can, sometimes the speech sure sounds strange, too! :) As far as rivers go, there’s not a whole lot of water here (ok, nearly none), but the land is certainly carved up by riverbeds! Make what you will of the similarities, but for Lynne, these verses were a confirmation for her.

God doesn’t use these verses for the same purpose in everybody’s life, but Lynne knew that God was calling her to Northern Kenya. Both Nick and Lynne wanted to work as missionaries in Africa, and decided that they wanted to work in Bible translation. Through God’s leading and provision, they arrived in Korr in 1980 to begin work on Bible translation. What God has grown up in this place in the past twenty-nine years is astounding.

Bible Translation. Adult literacy classes. Evangelism. Veterinary care. Nursery schools. Primary school. Secondary school. Boarding for the schools. A nomadic nursery and lower primary school in the goobs (villages). Tirrim School of the Bible. Church planting and development. Medical care. Building programs. Water projects. Child sponsorship. Higher education sponsorship. Plans for a medical clinic and laboratory… are you beginning to see why I’m so overwhelmed when I start to think of how to explain it all???

Bible Translation

For years, Nick worked on learning Rendille (and he still learns new things all the time!). He is humble and won’t say this himself, but he is extremely fluent in the language and communicates easily with anyone. He, along with a small team, has systematically mapped out the structures of the language and has established a phonetic alphabet that has allowed Rendille to move from being an oral language only to a written one. When at one time the language was in danger of disappearing, having it written down has now preserved it. Even the most traditional, uneducated Rendille elders have realized this, and have given Nick gifts of great honor in gratitude for preserving the language.

With Rendille now possessing a written system, translation work could begin. While the focus for the first stage was the New Testament, the translation committee also decided to translate Genesis and Exodus 1-20.

They chose these books for a number of reasons, a few being that they gave a good foundation of who God is and a good history of our faith. It also describes people living a lifestyle very similar to their own – nomads in a desert land.

To date, they have published Genesis and Exodus 1-20, the book of Mark, and the book of Acts (and maybe John?). Only a few books are allowed to be published until the whole thing is ready (for cost reasons, they can’t print each book individually and then do a second printing of all the books together), which hopefully will be about a year and a half from now. Twenty-nine years, and this process is almost done (well, the New Testament, anyway)!!! Very soon the Rendille will have the Bible in their OWN language! (click to enlarge)

It is beyond cool to see what an impact God’s word has on people’s lives. Indubaayo is one lady who got a copy of the book of Mark when she was in the literacy program. All throughout the course, she kept telling the teachers, “This reading and writing is great, the health stuff is great… but we have our OWN god! Stop telling us about this Jesus guy!” Then one day she was reading the book of Mark when she was extremely sick in her hut, and she was hit with an overwhelming realization that this was true! She decided to devote her life to Jesus right then, and since has grown to become the most amazing lady. She is now one of the four evangelists for the Tirrim project and goes out to villages six or seven times a week to tell people about Jesus and the new life he’s given her.

Indubaayo has a copy of the books of the Bible that are available, and she carries them with her everywhere she goes. They are tattered and worn and falling apart, but she refuses to let anyone give her a new copy. “No! These books are TOO precious!” she’ll tell you. I am so convicted by this. Her absolute LOVE of God’s word is so challenging! How wonderful it will be when the entire New Testament is available!

Although she has read what she has over and over and over again, there is so much more that Indubaayo is longing to learn. The Rendille religion focuses a lot around sacrifices, and it’s a big question that she has been facing when she is telling people about Jesus. They thing what she’s telling them is great, but they just can’t fathom a religion without sacrifices. Time and time again, they ask her, “But what about sacrifices?” “But what about sacrifices?” She’s tried to answer them as best she can (and I’m confident that this woman has a solid answer for them), but still she questions exactly what to say, how to make them understand that the death of Jesus is the final sacrifice – we don’t need anything else! We’re forgiven – the. end. But still the people ask, “But what about sacrifices?”

A few months ago, Nick had just finished translating Romans 12. He printed off a copy of the chapter from the computer and gave it to Indubaayo to read to a group of Rendille people. (One of the many steps involved in Bible translation is to take the translation to the public and sort of test it on them – see if it makes sense, if it uses the language that they would use, and to see if there are any tweaks that need to be made.) As she read it, her face lit up. This was it! THIS was the answer she’d been looking for!

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.(Romans 12:1-2)

God doesn’t want our sheep, our goats, our camels… he wants US! Alive! He wants our lives, dedicated to Him! LIVING sacrifices!

Excitedly, she clutched the printout to her heart and informed Nick he wasn’t about to get it back. The very next day she used this passage – one she had just read for the first time in her life to speak to the secondary school students in their devotion time. Though school kids can sometimes look down on traditional people, they were all ears as she spoke about living sacrifices. In large part through her talk, fifteen of those kids indicated that they wanted to make a new or a stronger commitment of faith.

There is powerful stuff going on here! God’s word is transforming lives! But transformation doesn’t come without opposition.

Since beginning this post, we have learned that as of two months ago, the translation funding has been stopped. The translators and all the support staff that are covered under this project are now out of work. The organization that has been funding the translation has seen a 70% drop in their donations during this economic downturn, and has had to cut many projects. Heartbreakingly, the Rendille translation project is one of them. Nobody is quite sure what this means for the future of this project. We’re praying really hard.

Nick and Lynne are heartened somewhat in knowing that SO many times with Bible translation projects like this, as the Bible nears completion, calamity seems to strike (the translation project is not the only one with funding issues right now – it seems the Tirrim project is being hit on all sides.). It’s happened time and time again, and now they’re seeing it happen here, too. Hmmm… kind of like someone really doesn’t want the word of God to get out!

But! … God is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!
* Photo of Indubaayo courtesy Nick Swanepoel