A new Bible translation in the Kafa language – one of 86 indigenous Ethiopian languages, spoken by more than a million people – has been dedicated in the Ethiopian town of Bonga. Even though a Kafa New Testament translation has been available since 2001, Christians in the Kaffa region have had to listen to sermons translated from Amharic, mainly because pastors didn’t have a full Bible in the Kafa language. Many people are also unable to read and write in their native Kafa – so the translation team have also produced an audio recording of the new Bible, which will truly change life there.
The translation work was begun by a SIM New Zealand missionary, Ruth Cremer. Ruth arrived in Ethiopia in 1954, at age 23, called by God through the verse: “You also, O Ethiopians, shall be slain by my sword.” (RSV, Zephaniah 2:12)
She worked initially as a primary school teacher, and in the 60’s and early 70’s, being gifted at languages and fluent in Amharic, also helped with language tuition of new mission workers. At the time of the communist revolution in 1974 she refused to take her seat on the plane evacuating missionaries, but eventually the communist government decreed that foreigners were not allowed to teach at the primary level and the SIM schools were closed. Ruth felt a call to translation and persuaded SIM to let her study linguistics in England with SIL, and on her return was appointed to the SIM ‘Key Scriptures’ team, where she worked until the booklets were printed in several different languages.
In 1981 Ruth became the Kafa New Testament project coordinator, recruiting and mentoring a number of native Kafa speakers, including Matewos Gebremariam whom she had taught many years before.
The New Testament work was finished in 2001, and Matewos took over as team leader for the translation of the Old Testament. Early in 2008 Ruth felt unwell and was persuaded to return to NZ, where she died a short time later, 54 years after first travelling to Ethiopia.
Ruth was dedicated to her task and to the Ethiopian people. She called Ethiopia home (despite her wish to be buried in Swanson, where she grew up), and at her memorial service in Ethiopia — attended by something like a thousand people — was claimed by the Ethiopians: “Ruth belongs to us” and “Ruth was more Ethiopian that I am”. Among Ethiopians she was famous for her hospitality and her little one room apartment was a welcoming place for many of them arriving in Addis Ababa after long journeys from down-country.
She was called Mother Ruth by many. At the time of her death Matewos wrote, “Around the whole of Ethiopia, she has many ‘children’ who are involved in different work and ministries. Some of them are in key positions in the government … She ate what the people ate, and stayed many days in grass-roofed houses. She faced many kinds of difficulties, some of which people of my generation cannot tolerate. I think that is why God used her and made her a blessing to this country, especially to the Kafa people”.
Ruth’s commitment is also remembered fondly by fellow mission workers – a great number sent tributes to New Zealand for her funeral service. Many remember her braided hair and long cotton dresses. One spoke of Ruth saying that as a young person she had been Ruth in her twenties very shy and conservative; others remember her as a little bit scary – especially when it came to speaking Amharic in her hearing – but all saw how the Ethiopians opened up to her. One recounts how she declined a meal invitation because reciprocating would reduce the amount of time she could spend with her Ethiopian friends and helpers, and tells that once, in preparing for a mule trek to remote villages, Ruth was so focused on her ministry that she forgot to take a change of clothes! Another explains about a group of UK teenagers visiting Ruth for tea, with one coming away saying “I think I know what commitment means now – I’m not sure that I can do it, but I know what it means”. Many speak of her hospitality, especially to New Zealand mission workers.
As you remember Ruth, please pray for all those who have been involved in this translation work. In particular give thanks for Matewos, and for Carolyn Ford (who after ‘retiring’ in 2015 may now enjoy a bit more time at home).
— Geoff McGowan
One way to honour Ruth would be to support Matewos and his family as he has been offered an unpaid role with Wycliffe Ethiopia, to continue the same type of work. To contact Wycliffe Bible Translators NZ office, click here: