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Bible translated into Mali's Dogon language

Project aims to provide Bible in every one of the world's languages.

A girl from the Fulani tribe poses for a portrait while her mother pounds grain in Mali's remote Dogon country January 14, 2007. The Wyckliffe Bible translation project is working in Mali's Dogon country to translate the Bible into the rare languages. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Mali)

SANGHA, Mali — It had been more than 50 years since the first Christian missionaries came to Dogon Country, so it was hard for many to remember the words they once used to describe how to sacrifice a goat to an animist god.

Josue Teme, 39, became a Christian as a teenager and spent years avoiding animism. But when he took a job translating the Bible’s Old Testament into Toro So, one nearly two dozen Dogon languages, Teme and his translation partner, Timothee Kodio, knew there was only way to learn the words they needed to translate ancient Israelite practices.

The men left Sangha, a small town perched atop a nearly 100-mile-wide cliff, and inched down to visit animist leaders in the villages carved into the rock.

The animists are used to questions. European anthropologists who traveled here last century reported that Dogon holy men had long known about stars unseen by the naked eye, among other cosmic and biological wonders. Since then, scientists and tourists have swarmed the cliff villages, craving an audience with a holy man or a glimpse of an animist ritual.

Some holy men rejected Teme’s questions, suspicious of the religion that drew thousands of Dogon from the beliefs of their ancestors. Others welcomed him, grateful that their words would live on, even if through Christianity.

“The Dogon person doesn’t want to forget where he came from,” Teme says. “Christianity doesn’t take that out of a Dogon person.”

But anthropologists worry that Bible translation projects could rob future generations of a rich heritage — and possibly the keys to scientific quandaries — that are deeply rooted in animism.

Bible translation projects don’t necessarily damage traditional religions, “but it may be that there’s no room for them,” says Abbie Hantgan, a linguist who works for a University of Michigan project to develop a dictionary for each of the Dogon languages.

The Bible translation project in the Dogon area of Mali is just one of thousands taking place around the world under Wycliffe Bible Translators, an Orlando-based organization and its partners. Wycliffe in 1999 announced a plan to ensure that a Bible is available in every known language by 2025.

So far the Bible has been translated into nearly 2,500 languages, according to Wycliffe’s statistics. Most of the remaining 2,200 languages are in oral-only communities, Wycliffe spokesman Scott Toncray says. The projects provide literacy classes, he says, and people learn to control how their own histories are recorded.

“We’re into preserving culture, not changing it,” Toncray says.