Making the Bible Accessible in Botswana

by Rob Veith ’91

Last Sunday after church, I went on a riverboat cruise along the Thamalakane River. That’s what people do here in Maun, Botswana. It was liking being on the jungle ride at Disneyland, only real.

When I graduated from college 20 years ago, I never expected to live in Africa or pursue my love for music. In community college, before transferring to Westmont, I took a class on synthesizers and recording. At Westmont, I briefly took guitar lessons, played bass in one of the jazz groups, and mixed sound for one of the bands that regularly played in The Study. When I went on a Potter’s Clay trip, I played guitar with the music team. I always had an interest in music.

But a high school guidance counselor discouraged me from putting too much energy into my passions for art and music and pushed me towards a career with “more of a chance of gainful employment,” as he put it. So I entered college with a psychology major, intending to become a counselor like my mother; and I left college with a minor in psychology and a major in English, with the intent of becoming a journalist.

I became neither a psychologist nor a journalist.

I had a moment several years ago when I went to church hoping to hear a message from the Lord. I felt directionless and uncertain in my vocation and calling. The pastor read Luke 9:62: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Thanks, Lord, I thought. Just what I need to hear. I thought I knew where the sermon was going, what I was supposed to learn from it, then I heard the voice of folk singer Odetta in the back of my mind singing, “Keep your hands on the plow and hold on.”

I knew I’d heard the song before, but couldn’t figure out where. I also couldn’t get it out of my head. So I did some research. Odetta recorded it in the 1950s. Bob Dylan did a version of it in on his first album, which he called “Gospel Plow.” Pete Seeger adapted the verses and melody for a song called “Eyes on the Prize.”

Paul and Silas locked in jail
Didn’t have no one to go their bail.
Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.
Paul and Silas thought they were lost
Dungeon shook and the chains fell off.
Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.

The verses are full of images of God doing what he’s going to do and people coming along for the ride. The message to me: The one who looks back isn’t fit for service in the kingdom not because he doubts himself or loses focus, but because God is about to do something. If you look back, you’re going to miss it. It isn’t an image of pushing a plow along, but an image of the plow just going—and you’re along for the ride.

I serve as a missionary ethnomusicologist and vernacular media specialist working for Lutheran Bible Translators with my wife, Eshinee. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even known what that was. Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.

Of course, 20 years ago, I don’t know if I would have known much about Botswana, either.

Botswana is a land-locked country just north of South Africa. In one of the least densely populated countries in the world, about two million people live in a place the size of Texas. It’s famous for the Kalahari desert, wildlife safaris, bird watching, and, more recently, a series of detective novels by Alexander McCall Smith. A hot and dry place, the high today is only 75 degrees, so we’re all going out in our coats. It often gets to 110 degrees in Maun, gateway to safaris and the Okavango Delta.

People often ask me what it’s like to live here, as if I were living in an odd place. It isn’t as weird living outside of the United States as I expected. The first time I returned to the States, I shared some pictures. One shows me recording a choir in an office. We’re surrounded by computers, and there’s a Coke bottle in the foreground. Everyone is wearing professional attire. I think that photo could have been taken anywhere. Someone asked me, “How did you get power for your computer?” I had just gotten back and wasn’t seeing Africa through American eyes, so I answered, “I plugged it into the outlet.” I wasn’t intending to be facetious. My home and office have running water and electricity. I buy my groceries at the grocery store. I can even shop for clothes at one of the two or three malls in the country, although they usually don’t carry my size.

When you live outside your own culture, you go through a revolving progression of cultural interpretation. First, it seems like everyone is the same the world over. The next step is, “Wow, this place is really weird. Look at the houses! Look how everyone is dressed!” Third, you come to the conclusion that even though everything looks strange, on some level deep down, we all want the same things in life. Then comes the realization, no, everyone is not the same, and I don’t understand these people very well. It’s occasionally frustrating, of course. But in realizing that we don’t understand, we become able to learn and grow. Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.

Many strong Christians live in Botswana. The challenge for the church here has been providing adequate discipleship. Jesus told us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. A lot of energy has gone into making converts and building buildings. While there’s nothing wrong with that—and a lot right—it tends to create a perpetually immature church.

In America, the average Christian has access to Christian material through the Internet, a Christian book store or television. There are ways to be discipled within and without congregational fellowship. This is not as possible in Botswana. Many people don’t own a personal Bible, or if they have one, it belongs to their extended family—and it’s likely written in an unfamiliar language or an archaic version of their own.

Many people read poorly. With limited access to other avenues, the only opportunity they have to grow in their faith is through church programs. Most churches only have the staff and energy to do a Sunday morning service. My job is to develop materials to aid the church in discipleship by bringing the Word of God into a medium that believers can keep in their hearts.

The core idea of vernacular media is giving people access to the Bible in a culturally appropriate manner. Old-school Bible translation, where the Bible is often the first written book in a language, couples translation with literacy efforts. In many places in the world, for a variety of different reasons, Bible translations didn’t get used because people couldn’t access the printed word. We believe that superior access to God’s Word comes through the mother tongue via media already used within the culture to convey information.

In Botswana, for example, the people speak approximately 30 languages. Students learn to read and write one, or maybe two, of these languages in school. Reaching these people for the Gospel in the language they best understand requires a format other than print. We may use video, we may use audio, we may use dance or drama. We try to use formats already present within a people group.

I do a lot with music due to my dual specialty in ethnomusicology. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Botswana has invited me to help them in developing a truly indigenous hymnody. In my local church, the average person can sing several hundred songs from memory but can’t quote a single Bible verse.

I’ve started working with local song writers to put passages from the Bible into songs. That way, people can learn the Bible the same way they learn songs. Like many missionary-planted churches around the world, the church in Botswana has a strong outside influence. Missionaries brought a musical format that was meaningful to them, assuming it would also be meaningful to the local people. Church music in Botswana comes mostly from the outside. Even songs in Setswana (the national language) are in a dialect of Setswana from South Africa. The hymns are primarily translated from European hymns.

While some people like this music and find it worshipful, many consider it an empty ritual. I have a friend, Ntirelang Berman, who is a Lutheran and a great folklore artist (he won Folklore Artist of the Year for Botswana in 2007). Ntirelang said to me a few months ago, “I can wear the clothes of a Christian, but they are uncomfortable, like wearing a suit when I want to wear a T-shirt.”

Church music means nothing to him. He longs for the “depth” of the folk music of his own people. The lack of personal, emotional connection to the music played in church leads to a magical/ritualistic aspect to the church service in many parts of Africa. As in, this is the music God likes, so we must do it like this. God doesn’t like our music, so we must learn His if we are to please him. In southern Africa, important information is often communicated musically. One of the goals in ethnomusicology in Botswana is to encourage the development of worship materials that are meaningful and powerful to Christians in this country.

While I officially serve with the Lutheran church, I work with any organization whose goals are in line with the work I have been called here to do. Missionaries worldwide have discovered that in some contexts a denominational affiliation opens doors and in others it closes them. In southern Africa, coming to the country under an established, respected denomination gives us credibility. Missionary is a loaded word here, associated with cultural imperialism, suppression of traditional values and worse things. But when I tell people, “I work for the Lutherans,” everyone is happy. “We know the Lutherans. They are good people.”

I did a project in 2009 with an indigenous denomination called the Spiritual Healing Church. I don’t know too much about their beliefs, except that they combine Christian thinking with some traditional religion practices involving ancestor veneration. My thinking is: Give them the Bible in a medium they can understand, appreciate and utilize, and let the Holy Spirit deal with any theological issues. Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.

Vernacular media programs involve other art forms as well. One group I expect to work with tells stories through dance. We plan to develop new dances to tell biblical stories and video them to share with others in the language group.

Video is popular, and we intend to dub the Jesus film into some of the local languages and produce study guides to accompany it. Sometimes, we record people reading the Bible in their own language. We can get battery-powered speakers, plug in a thumb drive full of audio files, and take them out to the villages. We play sections of the Bible to people who—even if they might be Christians—have never heard the word of God in a language they understand. A big part of what I do is encouraging people to worship God through the art forms of their hearts — and the first step for me is to love what they’re doing.

I came to this vocation through my wife, Eshinee. She arrived at the Canadian Institute of Linguistics in British Columbia right after finishing her service with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). Convicted of the need for Bible translation worldwide, she took an intensive summer program to see if she was suited to this work. She is also a talented singer. A fellow with whom I had collaborated on some musical side-projects recorded some of her songs. He played my songs for her and her songs for me, so we became fans of each other before we came face to face.

We met right before she returned to her home in Newfoundland to spend a year working to raise money for her last year at the university. We hit it off and maintained an email friendship until she returned to British Columbia to finish her degree, which is when we started dating. When we were getting serious, she told me she was called to do Bible translation work overseas, and if we were going to continue our relationship, I needed to figure out something useful to do when we were there. At first, I planned to continue working as a freelance graphic designer to support her, but the mission agencies we contacted don’t allow a spouse to work outside the mission.

The recruiter from Lutheran Bible Translators met with us in person. After spending some time getting to know my skills, gifts and passions, he pronounced me a vernacular media specialist. This would be my “something useful.” I hadn’t heard the term before and had to ask him what it meant.

Looking back, I can see now how my experiences led me to this calling. Westmont opened my head up to a much bigger world. I grew up in Ventura, Calif., as a Presbyterian, and my friends were punks and surfers. I couldn’t imagine a Christianity other than Presbyterianism. At Westmont, I saw a body of Christ that wasn’t Presbyterian Jesus People. With my friends from school, I attended a Catholic service and a Foursquare church on adjacent weekends. I encountered music styles and art forms I wouldn’t have considered before. I learned to look at the arts and judge them on their own terms, not on my expectations and standards. I came away with pretty big ears.

The Horizon had been my main employer at Westmont, and I’d always been a writer. The paper used computers for layout and compositing, a cutting-edge practice at the time. My experience as a manual and computer-based compositor got me in the door with newspapers after I graduated. By the time I had an opportunity to take a writing job, I’d discovered I had regular hours and better pay if I stayed with graphics.

The Horizon was a big part of my life. The paper attracted a lot of colorful characters, truly unique people. What we were trying to do was crazy: six people and a handful of volunteer writers (who might or might not turn in their story) put out an eight- to 16-page paper every week while trying to complete a degree. It’s in the top five most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. It helped me learn time-management skills.

The early 1990s were dark times for newspapers in Southern California. A local competitor bought my paper. I had a big decision: stay with my current job and hope to survive the downsizing; take a job at another paper (the Santa Barbara News-Press offered me a position); or do something entirely different. I had an opportunity to join Lampost, a theatre company based in Iowa, and act on their North American tour, and that’s what I did.

The acting tour changed my life in many ways, not the least of which was taking my faith seriously again. It was too easy to be a Christian by custom, going to church every Sunday, being nice to people, when living in a cabin in Camarillo and working nights at a newspaper. Lampost presented sermons in dramatic form. Everywhere we went, we saw the message transform lives—and transform the actors.

A chance meeting (a divinely appointed one) while on tour led to my first true overseas mission experience. HCJB World Radio was looking for a graphic artist who could write to cover for a missionary on U.S. leave. I hadn’t seriously considered being a missionary. God took my willingness to do something for a short period of time and sent me to Ecuador with HCJB. There I met my friend of nearly 20 years, musician Marco Klaue. I joined Marco’s band in Ecuador, and we played some tracks that became a part of a local TV station’s ID message.

After HCJB, I tried to go back to normal life. I became successful over the years as a commercial artist and sometime copy writer, but I found it unfulfilling.

In 1996, I took a year off from work to attend Capernwray Bible School in England and Holsby Bible School in Sweden with the idea of entering full-time ministry. At Capernwray, God first encouraged me to use my love of music in His service. One of the staff at Capernwray had been led to compose new worship songs. He had new songs, but no band to play them and no one to record them. The year I arrived, a member from Marco’s old band also attended as did the bass player from Willow Creek and a virtuoso drummer from Northern Ireland. I took this international band, the new songs, and produced my first CD. For everyone involved it seemed an answer to prayer and a confirmation of calling.

After Bible school, I settled in the Pacific Northwest and returned to graphic design. When I learned my old friend Marco had come to British Columbia to finish his degree in music, we formed a new band and started playing together on weekends. And then I met Eshinee.

This is our fourth year in Botswana of Eshinee’s seven-year project to produce a New Testament in the Shiyeyi language. I’m involved with several short-term and ongoing projects with the Lutheran Church and other organizations in Botswana, Namibia and other places in Africa. For now, we’re settled in Maun (above). But that song keeps running in my head, and I don’t want to miss what God is going to do next. Keep your hands on the plow, hold on.

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