LANGUAGE IS FUN
If a stranger stops to ask for directions in parts of southern Appalachia, he might be told, “honey, you can’t get there from here.” Communicating in a different language can be the same way. Concepts that are as common as dirt in one culture might be unheard of in another. So you want to learn how to say “please” in Maa? Well, there isn’t a word for that. Or maybe you want to say “thank you” in NgaTurkana? Again, that vocabulary just isn’t there. But sometimes it’s the other way around. Turkana or Maasai cultures may have nailed down a concept in a single word that would take us a paragraph or a page to wrap our minds around.
This is one of my favorite Maasai words. If google translator worked for Maa (it doesn’t), it might translate osotua as “peace” or perhaps as “testament.” The first is inadequate and the second is misleading. Osotua is derived from the verb <asot>, “to join together.” The root meaning of osotua is “umbilical cord” (the thing which joins the mother and infant together). Consequently, one meaning is also “belly button” (the place where the thing which joins the mother and infant together was previously attached). But this is just scratching the surface.
Osotua also refers to “a deep relationship of shared profound peace” (think the hebrew shalom, שלמ) “that is characterized by a closeness, tied-together-ness, and unity like that shared between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.”
A common Maasai blessing is Osotua le Nkai! (“Osotua of God”). It means, “may you share osotua with God!” It means, “may you be bound so closely together in a relationship with God that it is like that between a mother and infant when the cord is still attached!”
Another way to put it is that osotua is that type of relational peace and well-being that can only be found within a covenantal relationship. Thus you will find that the Maa translation of the bible is divided into two parts: Osotua Musana and Osotua Ng’ejuk (“The Old Osotua” and “the New Osotua”). There isn’t really a word for covenant in Maa. Olning’o, which means “kept agreement,” is commonly used. But the bible translators recognized that a covenant is (or should be) something even stronger than an unbroken agreement. A covenant is an olning’o that results in shared osotua.
A common Maasai proverb says Enkoshoke naata osotua: “It is the stomach which has osotua.” When I’m teaching in Maa, if I say “enkoshoke naata …” then the whole congregation or class spontaneously answers in unison: OSOTUA.” At one level this is as obvious as it is humorous: “It’s the belly that’s got a belly button.” Or you could say it more staidly, “the umbilical cord attaches to the belly.” But both of those miss the point. Another translation is “the stomach creates friendships.” 1 This is a proverb about table fellowship. When we eat together, we have the opportunity to begin to build osotua in our relationships. This is, of course, perfectly realized by christians when we share together in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Communion. When we partake of loaf and cup, ah! (“taste and see that the LORD is good!”) then we see that it is true: enkoshoke naata osotua. When we break and eat the bread together, when we bless and drink the cup together, then we experience true osotua: that deep communion within a covenantal relationship characterized by holy peace and a closeness that is like that between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.
And so to each of you I bid: Osotua of God to you! Osotua of Christ to you!
Note: “Maasai” is the name of the people and the culture. “Maa” is the name of the language.
1 So S. S. ole Sankan, p. 92 in The Maasai (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1971).
We missionaries are often asked to describe our typical day. That may be the hardest question we’re ever asked. We tend to have multiple responsibilities in multiple locations and vocational ministry can be full of surprises. But we do understand why the question is asked. So since it has been awhile since we’ve shared a general ministry summary about our day-to-day and month-to-month work, we thought it might be helpful to some of you for us to do that. So if you’re interested, please read our update here.
We’ve been “home” in America since April … and consequently, we are homesick for our home and life in Kenya. Being able to reconnect with family and supporters has been great, but we also miss our life and work in Kenya.
To read more of our adventures, both stateside and in Kenya, see our latest update.
Oh, the mailed update included a nifty fridge magnet. So if you’re on our mailing list, start checking your mailboxes later this week. For the rest of you, here’s a digital copy.
One of the favorite parts of my job is serving as a translation consultant to the Kenya Bible Society as it is working to revise the Maasai Bible. The Maa translation was prepared from the English RSV with occasional reference to the Living Bible (English) paraphrase. Now the folks who worked on the original, all things considered, did excellent work. But there are still passages which are incomprehensible to native speakers, clauses that are missing, and other errors.
For over a year I’ve been working with the two Maasai believers who are overseeing this revision via email, together with a missionary friend and colleague of mine (Paul Highfield). But recently I’ve learned that their office is in Ngong town, just 15 minutes from our house. So I’ve started meeting weekly with Peter and Paul. They have Maasai names, of course, but I was introduced to them with their biblical names, and “Peter and Paul” does sound nicely apostolic for bible translation work.
I want to take a moment to share a snapshot of this part of our ministry. At our last meeting Peter asked me to review a particularly tricky passage in Romans. The verses in Maa had been translated in a “literal” and (wooden) word-for-word fashion from the RSV. Consequentially, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever to a Maasai … unless, of course they were also fluent and literate in English and had access to the RSV. Then they could figure out the meaning of the English … but the Maa verses themselves had no discernible meaning. So my “apostolic” colleagues had labored over six or seven English translations and come up with a translation that made sense in Maa. They asked me to review it to see if it made the same sort of sense as the Greek in which Paul (the other one, the famous one) had written it.
So I started reading. But before I got to the revised tricky part of the passage something caught my eye. “Mme ninye,” it said. Literally that means “not he/she/it.” But the sense of the Maa phrase is better rendered in English as “no, not that,” as in “no, I’d rather not have coffee, thank you … could I perhaps have some tea?” But I knew that’s a passage where Paul is saying μη γενοιτο, pronounced “may genoito!”
The phrase is sometimes translated in English versions as “by no means!” or “not at all!” Literally, it means “may it not be!” But it has the moral force of a curse, sort of like saying to your buddy John, “John, may YOU not be, may you not exist now, may you never have existed in the past nor may you come to exist in the future.” This is very strong language. Several times Paul asks a rhetorical question such as “shall we then continue to sin so that grace may abound?” and then, just to make sure that there is no room for mistake, he answers his own question: Absolutely not! Never! God forbid! or even, Hell no! He uses the phrase 10 times in Romans, once in 1 Corinthians and thrice in Galatians. The crowd that Jesus was teaching uses it once, in Luke 20.16.
Clearly to translate may genoito as mme ninye, no, not that, maybe something else is a bit weak. So Peter and I spent over an hour discussing it until we found a Maa phrase that carries the force Paul intended. I noticed that in the Luke passage, the phrase is rendered as “God forbid!” in the RSV rather than the weaker “by no means” in the Romans verses on which we were working. Next I checked the Maa version and was delighted to discover that the original translators had nailed it. They didn’t translate “God forbid!” literally, but they did translate the moral and dynamic force of “God forbid!” So the fourteen times Paul uses the phrase, the new revision of the Maa bible will now read “Taba meing’uang’a!” This phrase is the strongest of “absolutely not, not now, not ever” language that the Maa language has to offer. It’s a perfect fit in Paul’s discourses. Thus to the original translation, we can say “mme ninye!” (not that, something else) and offer a new translation to Maasai believers that better conveys the apostle’s intended sense.