May 21, 2006
Josiah Ole Kirisuah was raised a Masai warrior on the sun-parched
plains of east Africa.
He lived in a hut of dried cow dung and drank his milk warm with
cow's blood. He hunted jackals and warthogs, then zebras,
wildebeests, buffalo, rhinos and lions.
''It is the tradition of the Masai. You grow up to be a warrior,
always ready to fight,'' says Kirisuah, who on Sunday was making
the first of three appearances in Calgary to talk about how he
became a Christian Bible translator.
''We were brought up in a spirit of excellence, of tremendous
pride. To us, Christians looked like weaklings, always ready to
Kirisuah, 51, now works in Nairobi, Kenya, for Bible Translation
and Literacy, an African partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators of
In 2005, his daughter Neema, a gospel singer, won the KORA
all-Africa music award as best female vocalist.
And now father and daughter are in Canada on Wycliffe's 12-city
Spear and Song tour, which combines Kirisuah's story of African
Christianity with his daughter's Afro-gospel fusion music.
Sheila Rowe, Wycliffe Canada's board chairman, calls Kirisuah an
example of both the post-colonial African church and Wycliffe's own
"new paradigm," which supports African Bible translators rather
than doing it for them.
"In the colonial church, you had to choose between being Christian
and being African," Rowe says. "But Josiah is 100 per cent
Christian and 100 per cent Masai. The goal is new Africans, not
Before Christianity, the Masai had a strong belief in a god who
created all things, explains Kirisuah. In particular, the god Ngai
created cattle and gave them all to the Masai. From time
immemorial, they have waged war with their neighbours to regain
Kirisuah went to an Anglican school because the Kenyan government
insisted his father educate at least one of his 22 children (by
four wives). But Kirisuah didn't take Christianity seriously until
he read evangelist Billy Graham's World Aflame at age
"I'd always awakened each morning happy with the exploits of
yesterday, but I always felt empty in myself, as if something was
missing," he says.
"When I read that book, tears came to my eyes, and that surprised
When Kirisuah, then a schoolteacher, married his wife five years
later, he was the only Christian in his village. Risking ostracism,
he would not inflict circumcision on his four daughters. He also
has a son.
But there were issues with his new Christian life as well. Old
colonial missionaries were "completely ignorant of the Masai" and
made them do "things repugnant to them."
They assumed wrongly that warrior beadwork was magical and
insisted converts discard them. But the Masai remove beads from
their people only at death, as part of a funeral, "so the gospel
meant to bring life was made to look as if it brought death."
And while the African church needs to resist traditional polygamy,
Kirisuah says, colonial missionaries insisted extra wives be sent
away, a cruelty to them.
Kirisuah points out his own family was able to balance the
"My father has been married to my mothers for 50 years, but they
have now become Christian."
The translator has seen Christianity flourish in his homeland in
the last decades. He was the only Christian 27 years ago and now
three-quarters of the people in his eight surrounding villages are
Neema, 21, says it is an age of "new evangelization in
She knows westerners view Africa as a "diseased and dying
continent," but Africans see westerners as "overweight, depressed
Both must see they have "a lot of struggles and a lot to
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada