In the Timbuktu region of West Africa dwell the Songhay people, numbering approximately 200,000. These farmers and boat people of the Niger River descended from the largest empire in West Africa, which previously covered parts of nine present-day countries from the mid-16th to late 17th centuries.
First introduced to West Africa in the 11th century, Islam remains the predominant religion, with 99.8% Sunni and Sufi adherents throughout the region. Christians comprise only .2% of the population. The Mali government largely respects the freedom of religion established by the constitution, and the Muslims maintained amicable relations with practitioners of minority religious faiths for most of the country's long history. However, since the 2012 imposition of Sharia rule in northern parts of the country, the Christian persecution index published by Open Doors has described the persecution in the north of Mali as severe.
In 1993, Bibles International received a request from Evangelical Baptist Missions about the possibility of producing a Songhay Bible in the Koyra Ciini dialect, but only after conducting a field study trip did they see the possibility of proceeding with the project. Although BI adopted the Songhay translation project in April 2000, the Northern Mali Conflict/Mali Civil War delayed work for a year and a half, with sporadic fighting still occurring to this day.
Local church association Federation des Eglises Evangeliques Baptistes and BI agreed upon the production of several trial editions, resulting in the 2003 printing of Mark, Luke, and John. Further progress produced a 2012 trial edition of the books of 1 Corinthians through James, with an additional trial edition printed in 2014, which included Matthew, Acts, and Romans. The translation team included Mahamane Traore as the lead translator, Faith Baptist Mission (formerly EBM) missionary Ken Beckley as the project coordinator, and several BI consultants.
Ken shared that when The Jesus Film used the gospel of Luke in Songhay rather than in French, a dramatic change occurred. Instead of hearing the typical hum from the audience as they asked each other what was said and what was meant, the crowd became so quiet that he could literally "hear a pin drop." After seeing the movie, one person told Ken, "I didn’t know Jesus was Songhay!" They had completely understood and identified with our Lord.
Upon the completion of the New Testament translation in 2018, the dedication followed on February 16, 2019, in Mali's capital city, Bamako. BI Director Tim F. joined the celebration as the Songhay believers rejoiced to see the tangible result of many years of faithfulness and prayers despite the struggles and trials that had accompanied this translation work.
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