When Karen and Roger Van Otterloo traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) in 1980, they carried the burden of a complex task.
As missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators, the couple set out to study an unwritten language in hopes of one day producing the first Bible in the Kifuliiru language. More than three decades later, that goal is nearly complete.
Since the mid-1970s the Van Otterloos have been missionaries with Wycliffe. They met while earning their master's degrees in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Roger and Karen Van Otterloo pose for a photo with copies of the books they’ve written and the New Testament they helped translate into the Kifuliiru language. The couple visited Jamestown on furlough to stay with Mrs. Van Otterloo’s father.
P-J photo by Scott Shelters
Mrs. Van Otterloo, the former Karen Peterson, a 1972 Jamestown High School graduate, was always interested in missionary and linguistic work. Missionaries who were friends with her parents would come to her family's Jamestown home while she was growing up.
"I just felt that God had called me to do language work," she said. "I like doing word puzzles, and analyzing language is a lot like solving one of those."
Van Otterloo grew up in a Christian home but struggled with faith in his youth. He was always interested in language, however.
"When I was in sixth grade, they taught us the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and everyone in the class seemed to hate it," he said. "I loved it. I've always enjoyed languages."
He became a Christian in college as he was struggling over the meaning of life. He found the answers he was looking for in the Bible.
From 1980-1996, the Van Otterloos lived in D.R. Congo in central Africa. They began studying Kifuliiru, a spoken, but not written, Bantu language.
"There was a need in Congo that was presented to us," Mrs. Van Otterloo said. "The Kifuliiru-speaking people didn't have a Bible in their language, and they wanted one."
They analyzed the language for many years and ran into several word order and tone issues.
"We wanted to translate it in a way that was natural and that reflected the Bantu way of expression," Van Otterloo said. "If you just went in and translated word for word from English, it would be a mess. The alphabet needed to be developed. The Bantu languages are basically tone languages. The same word with a different tone has a different meaning."
When a civil war broke out in 1996, the Van Otterloos were forced to leave and returned to the United States for two years. They then set out for Nairobi, Kenya, where they've lived ever since. In 1999, their work resulted in the first New Testament in Kifuliiru.
"While we had the dedication, there were bombs going off in the distance. It wasn't very nice," Van Otterloo said. "Now the area has calmed down more."
Van Otterloo is currently revising the Book of Ezekiel, which will complete the entire Bible.
"The Bafuliiru themselves have become more educated," he said. "They are working on the translation. I work on helping them revise it and as a technical consultant. It's going to be published, God willing, in about two years."
Mrs. Van Otterloo doesn't do the actual translation. She works with linguistics, literacy and orthography as a linguistic consultant to other languages, especially in the area of alphabet development.
"That is the first step in orthography," she said.
BEYOND THE BIBLE
While in Africa, the Van Otterloos had five children, who grew up speaking multiple languages, including English and Kifuliiru.
Van Otterloo and his wife recently completed books on the language. Mrs. Van Otterloo's is called "The Kifuliiru Language Volume 1: Phonology, Tone, and Morphological Derivation," and her husband's is titled "The Kifuliiru Language Volume 2: A Descriptive Grammar."
They soon learned their work was also needed in schools.
"While we were in the Kifuliiru area, we saw there were about 40 schools run by the church," Van Otterloo said. "They had an hour to teach religion, but because of the lack of a curriculum, they were using that school period for other things. The church asked us to develop a religious curriculum, covering the Bible, for elementary schools."
Working with Scripture Gift Mission in Nairobi, they began developing a curriculum for African schools.
"When we got to Nairobi, we learned this is a felt need in many areas in the world," Van Otterloo said. "In Africa, there's no curriculum, but you're free to teach the Bible in school. In their opinion, when children have religious, moral education, they live a lot better than when they don't. We developed a curriculum to teach Bible knowledge from the beginning of the Bible to the end."
They tested out the curriculum in Kenyan schools, and students responded positively to the student-interactive course, called "Christian Life Skills."
There have been calls for the Bible curriculum across Africa. Van Otterloo wants to see it implemented wherever possible.
"When this course was tested in Congo (in) April of this year, we found out the teachers love it and the kids love it," Van Otterloo said.
The Van Otterloos plan to write another book on translating the Bible into Bantu languages in hopes of helping future missionaries with translations.
"We want to bequeath what we have learned over the decades to those who are coming behind us," said Van Otterloo, who will turn 62 next month. "We have to start thinking about not having all of this information lost when we are gone. We can help other people with other languages."
Between analyzing languages, writing books and working on spreading the Christian Life Skills curriculum, the Van Otterloos don't have to worry about keeping busy. Their motivation remains the same as it was three decades ago.
"I want to make this word come alive for other people so that it's very clear, very engaging, very interesting," Van Otterloo said. "That's my motivation for doing the Bible and the Bible curriculum, so these kids don't have to struggle and search the way I did."