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Vulnerable Mission


Part 1. East African Understandings of pneuma hagion, arising from indigenous languages

Evidence from just two languages is given below to demonstrate complexities in translation of pneuma hagion into East African tongues. Traditionally translated into English as Holy Spirit (or sometimes Holy Ghost)—various options are available to speakers of Kiswahili and Dholuo.[1]

The term roho is very widely used in East Africa (including in Kiswahili and Dholuo) to translate pneuma in the New Testament scriptures.[2] This term apparently reached East Africa through Arabic. The term roho came to East Africans, presumably along with many other Arabic terms that spread inwards as a result of trade and other interactions, through communities arising from inter-mixing with Arabs on the coast. This constitutes a translation of pneuma by a non-indigenous term.

An alternative term to translate pneuma is moyo (in many Bantu languages and sometimes in Kiswahili), and chuny in Dholuo. The former refers also to the heart and the latter (chuny) to the liver, but in both cases the terms appear to be close in impact to the metaphorical use of heart in English as ‘seat of the emotions’. Biblical scholars will realise that the use of these terms would probably be more appropriate translations of the Greek kardia than of pneuma—which in a literal sense is breath or wind.

Terms for breath or wind are also available in the above languages. Muya in Dholuo and pumzi in Kiswahili can be used to translate breath of English, and air in a case such as that pumped into an inner-tube in a tyre. The Luo term (muya) is a relatively common and quite helpful means of translating pneuma. Pumzi is less frequently used. Wind is best translated by yet other terms. In Kiswahili the wind is blowing translates as upepo una vuma whereas in Dholuo we get yamo okudho. The Kiswahili term for wind therefore is upepo and the Luo term yamo. Both of these terms would make interesting translations for pneuma – because both are inherently bad when considered in the spiritual realm by native speakers. Pepo (as against upepo – wind) in Kiswahili is often used to translate demon (e.g. Matthew 4:24[3]) and yamo is an evil spirit in Dholuo.[4] Use of the terms upepo and yamo to translate pneuma (in the context of the Holy Spirit) would provide the interesting tension of using a word that is inherently evil, with the adjective ‘holy’.[5] Because neither yamo nor pepo are compatible with hagion (holy), these terms are not commonly used to translate pneuma, referring to the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament.

Yet another term to consider as a translation of pneuma (spirit) would be jachien (Dholuo) or mzimu (Kiswahili). These terms seem to be closer to the English term ghost, as they refer to the ongoing presence of someone who is dead in the land of the living. It is widely known that the role of ‘ancestors’ in Africa is often considered to be ongoing in the lives of the living. So much so in fact, that Mbiti chose to call them the ‘living dead’.[6] Translation of these terms for pneuma however brings particular difficulties, similar to those of wind mentioned above. That is both jachien and mzimu, at least in contemporary language usage, are likely to have someone shake with fear. The terms are inherently associated with what is bad or evil. They appear to be totally inappropriate for use with hagion (holy) and so are not used for this purpose.

Another term would be juok (Dholuo) or uchawi (Kiswahili). The inherent ‘evil’ (or bad) of these terms becomes apparent when one realises that they are commonly used to translate the English term witchcraft. But perhaps, as in other cases, the degree of ‘badness’ currently associated with juok or uchawi was not there in their original African uses, but came as a result of the coming of the Gospel? This is suggested by the fact that for some Ugandan Luo people, Juok (or Jok) is the translation most often used for theo.[7] Hoehler-Fatton confirms this in telling us that it is since the 1950s and 1960s that “… the very term juogi has taken on somewhat negative overtones.”[8]

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2019

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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