SANGHA, Mali — It had been more than 50 years since the first Christian missionaries came to Dogon Country, so it was hard for many to remember the words they once used to describe how to sacrifice a goat to an animist god.
Josue Teme, 39, became a Christian as a teenager and spent years avoiding animism. But when he took a job translating the Bible’s Old Testament into Toro So, one nearly two dozen Dogon languages, Teme and his translation partner, Timothee Kodio, knew there was only way to learn the words they needed to translate ancient Israelite practices.
The men left Sangha, a small town perched atop a nearly 100-mile-wide cliff, and inched down to visit animist leaders in the villages carved into the rock.
The animists are used to questions. European anthropologists who traveled here last century reported that Dogon holy men had long known about stars unseen by the naked eye, among other cosmic and biological wonders. Since then, scientists and tourists have swarmed the cliff villages, craving an audience with a holy man or a glimpse of an animist ritual.
Some holy men rejected Teme’s questions, suspicious of the religion that drew thousands of Dogon from the beliefs of their ancestors. Others welcomed him, grateful that their words would live on, even if through Christianity.
“The Dogon person doesn’t want to forget where he came from,” Teme says. “Christianity doesn’t take that out of a Dogon person.”
But anthropologists worry that Bible translation projects could rob future generations of a rich heritage — and possibly the keys to scientific quandaries — that are deeply rooted in animism.
Bible translation projects don’t necessarily damage traditional religions, “but it may be that there’s no room for them,” says Abbie Hantgan, a linguist who works for a University of Michigan project to develop a dictionary for each of the Dogon languages.
The Bible translation project in the Dogon area of Mali is just one of thousands taking place around the world under Wycliffe Bible Translators, an Orlando-based organization and its partners. Wycliffe in 1999 announced a plan to ensure that a Bible is available in every known language by 2025.
So far the Bible has been translated into nearly 2,500 languages, according to Wycliffe’s statistics. Most of the remaining 2,200 languages are in oral-only communities, Wycliffe spokesman Scott Toncray says. The projects provide literacy classes, he says, and people learn to control how their own histories are recorded.
“We’re into preserving culture, not changing it,” Toncray says.
Most critics agree that Bible translation projects help isolated communities. Once they can read and write, people can better market their goods. Schools are built, and students become literate.
But when Christian organizations bring education and aid to areas like the Dogon country, one of Africa’s poorest corners, animists might hesitate to fill in the gaps in a language project, Hantgan says. If Teme and other Christians use words tied to animist beliefs in a Christian context, the true meaning of those words are lost, she says. And if those words are associated with scientific knowledge that is tied to animism, that knowledge could be suppressed, she says.
The jury is still out on what the Dogon knew when, and how they knew it if they did, but Hantgan says the men she’s spent time with, who are often illiterate, are deep wells of information about the stars.
“There’s no way they would have gained this knowledge any other way,” Hantgan says. “They’re not reading Astronomy Today.”
Some of the old ways have already faded. Many villages now recognize a seven-day week instead of a traditional five-day week.
“That’s not about culture,” Kodio says. “It’s about being Biblical!”
The first Christian missionaries, a couple from the Christian Missionary Alliance church in America, came to Dogon country in the 1930s, “When the women still filed their teeth to sharp points,” says John McKinney, the couples’ son, who now owns a guesthouse near the cliff. His parents translated the New Testament in the 1950s, McKinney says.
When they were able to read the scriptures, he says, many Dogon discovered a deity more powerful than their own. They chose Christianity without coercion, he says.
Animists believe that blood sacrifice is essential to appease an angry god, McKinney says. When the entire Bible is published later this or early next year, many Dogon will see the Old Testament promises that Jesus is the ultimate blood sacrifice, McKinney says, and weep with relief at salvation from a brutal cycle of fear.
Everyone has the right to choose a religion, says William Vickers, an anthropologist who has written about Wycliffe’s work, “but there is a kind of hubris in telling people that their traditional religion is the work of the devil, and undermining the traditional leadership structure within the community.”
In a region where the dangers of flood, famine and even locust infestation are as real as they were in Biblical times, daily bread and medical care are of greater value to many Dogon than debate about scientific secrets and cultural change.
Djono Dolo stands under the hot sun in the sand that sweeps southeast off the cliff ledge. Villagers come to greet him, and he reaches down to draw patterns in the sand. When night falls, foxes snatch the lures Dolo places in the design. In the morning, Dolo divines meaning from how the fox musses the sand.
“We learn this from our grandfathers,” Dolo says. “If a problem is going to come to the village, we can warn everyone.”
Dolo feels no ill will toward the missionaries.
“We are all free to choose our religion,” he says. “Everyone has his own way.”
Editor's note: This dispatch has been updated to show the latest figures of Bible translations.