It all started with God’s plan for the Taabua people, a nation living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It ultimately involved a place called Mporokoso in the north-eastern corner of Zambia, south-west of Lake Tanganyika and due south from Lake Mweru, Zambia; a South African lady named Nel Claassen; consultants from different countries; and an international organization called The Word for the World.
Three elderly men in the DRC, then called Zaïre, felt compelled to translate the Bible into their mother tongue. They did a first draft of the Taabua New Testament, writing on whatever bits of paper they could find, including scraps of cardboard. Not knowing the next step in the translation process, they held onto their precious scraps. It was only in 1998 that, on hearing about the project, they searched until they found Bishop Kibombwe, who was by then one of the three Taabua mother tongue translators. They selflessly and graciously handed over their invaluable work to aid the project.
Mutumania Kasakota was the first recruited translator. He approached Bishop Kibombwe, an erstwhile Roman Catholic priest and academic in his seventies. He became so convinced that the Lord had called him to this work that he gladly traveled the 200 km from Moba to Musosa on the back of pastor Kasokota’s bicycle to meet Nel Claassen. At the end of the journey the Bishop told Nel, “Isn’t God gracious – we only fell off twice!” Kalinde Nzika was the third translator in the team, and they moved to Zambia. The project was based in Zambia as there was huge political instability in Zaïre, which resulted in a civil war in 1997.
The project proved to have been the litmus test of The Word for the World’s shift of emphasis on training mother tongue Bible translators in the field where the need is greatest: that is, working from the premise that more and more nationals are accepting responsibility for doing work themselves for and in their own countries.
The Gospel of John, ‘Yoane’, was printed and dedicated to the Taabua nation in 2002 in a moving ceremony where hungry hands reached out for it. They came in their thousands to drink, at last, from the fountain of living water, God’s Word in their heart language.
The entire New Testament was completed, scrutinized by the team, tested among the Taabua, consultant-checked by Greek scholars and printed at the end of 2005.
Once, while the team was back in their villages to do testing of the new translation, they had to flee with their families from the DRC when the area was overrun by the rebels. They were placed in a refugee camp at Mwange near Mporokoso in Zambia, together with 43,000 other Taabuas. They were stuck there for three years, with Nel Claassen battling refugee bureaucracy trying to get them released, but to no avail.
Soon after their arrival in the refugee camp, the men set up shop in a thatched office they had built. Here Bishop Kibombwe, Pastor Kasokota and Kalinde Nzika continued translating, trained reviewers, and did the field-testing of the translated material. They worked “office hours, just as if Nel were there” as one of them wrote. This is where they finished the first draft of the New Testament. The Bishop planted a church in the camp where he used portions of the translated material. Their working without any supervision was a powerful testimony all over the camp.
Communication between Nel and the team took place through Kapasa in Mbala. The nick-name ‘Kapasa’ means ‘messenger of the king’ in Bemba. He once wrote, “I was Nel’s messenger to and from the DRC, and Nel was appointed by the King of Kings for this work." Kapasa was the runner between Nel and the team in the camp, fetching and carrying work.
Kalinde Nzika once summed up the eternal impact of the project when he wrote, “The Taabua Bible translation project is a splendid and powerful hammer to break the darkness in which the Taabua lived for so long. They were unseen, non-existent and ignored. But, God will raise them up, as the Scriptures say in Hosea 2.23: …I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one’. I will say to those called ‘Not my people’, ’You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’. The voice of God in Taabua will be with them and in them. He is in control.”