For the past 2 months I’ve been working twice a week with a Krio language instructor, trying to learn the lingua franca of Salone. While English is the official language of the country, it is really the language of the educated elite. Significantly, members of each of the 16 major tribal communities in Sierra Leone speak their own language making for a multi-lingual country. In this context, Krio developed over time as a unifying means of communication and today 95% of Sierra Leoneans speak Krio. (In typical African fashion, many of my Lutheran colleagues actually speak 3 or more languages, and as I struggle to learn a new one myself, I have many willing teachers.)
Krio is an English-influenced creole with vocabulary from Portueguese and as many as 20 African languages. Some observers think of Krio as bad, broken, or pidgin English, but that is not quite the case. While English speakers can often grasp the essence of spoken Krio in simple conversations, Krio has its own distinctive grammar and a very African sensibility. The development of Krio reflects the early history of Freetown as a British protectorate established to provide land and freedom for slaves repatriated from North America and the Caribbean in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s. The Krio language developed as a means of communication amongst the myriad communities, tribes and nationalities living and trading in Freetown in that era. The language further developed with the influx of captives from all over west Africa who were freed enroute to lives of slavery in the Americas in the early 19th century.
Since arriving in Freetown in February, I’ve been intrigued by the question of language in worship. Worship in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone was significantly shaped in the formative years by the introduction and use of the Lutheran Book of Worship from the U.S. The LBW liturgy has been translated into Mende for churches upcountry, and I am told that this contextualized liturgy is used today in the Mende speaking congregations. In Freetown, the language of worship is a Krio and English mix, including English language liturgy and hymns from the LBW. Other Christian communities follow the same pattern of English and Krio usage, so the ELCSL is not unique in that respect. In almost all churches, scripture lessons are read in English. This is true even when congregation members have only a rudimentary grasp of English.
I have discovered that the use of English in Christian worship in Sierre Leone happens (primarily) for very practical reasons. Most worship resources are written in English. Pastors are trained in English. Significantly, most pastors — along with the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans – do not read or write in Krio. In recent years, the Krio alphabet and Krio phonetics have been re-formulated, revised and standardized, so even those who were once able to read Krio need remedial lessons in order to be literate by contemporary standards.
Issues of language and literacy have long been issues for Christians in mission. On the day of Pentecost, when the Christian church was born, “each of them heard… in his own native language.” (Acts 2:8) What a difference it makes to be able to hear, proclaim, and sing God’s good news in the language of one’s own heart. What a difference it makes to be able to read scripture, and to study God’s powerful word in the language one knows best.
I recently became a member of the Bible Society of Sierra Leone. Their goal is to change the lives of people through scripture. They are intentional about addressing the 68% rate of illiteracy in this country, training laity and pastors to read (each in his or her own language) and making scripture available in a variety of translations. As Paul says in Romans 10, “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?….”
At the present time, the Bible Society publishes a Krio New Testament as well as other language translations. Lutheran Bible Translators have been partners in some of the translation work here. The Bible Society hopes to complete translation of the Old Testament into Krio by 2011 and this past Sunday they even launched an electronic version of the “Krio talking bible.”
Last week I had my final formal Krio lesson but the learning continues. I am planning to read the New Testament in Krio and will be sharing the experience (and my questions) with the pastors in Freetown. Challenges abound!