Turning the page on a 19th century Mende prayer

As I noted in an earlier post, there was one 19th century prayer that had been published in Mende in Latin script in a journal that had gone untranslated.  With the help of a couple of old-fashioned digital tools (websites & e-mail) as standby, we were able to connect to someone who had enough familiarity with Mende to do a translation.  The prayer was printed in 1840 in an article by Josiah Willard Gibbs, Senior, and had been translated by James Covey:

“O Gewaw wa, biabi yandingo; biabi hani gbele bateni; biabi fuli bateni; biabi ngali bateni; biabi tûmbilegai bateni; biabi ngiyi bateni; ke ndzha wa; biabi dzhate bateni, ke nguli, ke gnwawni, ke nwua, ke nûnga wuloa.

“O Gewaw, biabi hinda gbele; biabi tamoi sina tigbele loa; biabi gna loa; biabi gna di loa; biabi gna loa, kia fuli agua; biabi gna loa gbindi; biabi gilila hinde gbi gnaga kala.

“O Gewaw, biabi gna gaw kola, gnagi siagwa bima; bi gna gaw mehe gi me ke gi gbawli, gi siagwa bima.  Gna di ei ha, gna di alolaw kunafaw.  Gna di bate yandingo.  Gnagi bi mawli, bi gnama humgbi.  Gnagi bi mawli, bi gna dawwung yandingo.  Gnagi hinda yammo wilia.  Manu gnama.  Gi bima ninia.  Kia nga ha, bi gna di we, bi dila hinda bigbe; Gewaw wa ndui wa.  Amen.”

Fig. 1. Portrait of James Covey, from Barber (1840).

The translation provided to me by Samuel Hingha Pieh, a direct descendant of Sengbeh Pieh, is as follows:

“Almighty God

You are an awesome God.

You are the creator of all things-

The Sun, moon, stars, valleys and Hills.

You created the Old and young People.

“Almighty God

You are everywhere

You Know the light and darkness

You are all Knowing.

“Almighty God

You are worthy to be known

Thank you for all you have done for humanity.

Your spirit will live forever.

“Forgive all our wrong

When we die, let us be in Peace

With the Child of God almighty. 


Exactly how much of this will hold up to rigorous linguistic analysis is yet to be determined, but it is nice to have a starting point for reference.

(Featured image is from an unknown painter, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Barber, John Warner. 1840. A history of the Amistad captives : being a circumstantial account of the capture of the Spanish schooner Amistad by the Africans on board, their voyage and capture near Long Island, New York, with biographical sketches of each of the surviving Africans : also, an account of the trials had on their case, before the district and circuit courts of the United States for the district of Connecticut. New Haven: E.L. & J.W. Barber, p. 15.

Beach, Randall. “‘From slavery to freedom’: Mutineer’s kin sees message in Amistad launching,” New Haven Register. https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/From-slavery-to-freedom-Mutineer-s-kin-sees-11694724.php, accessed 11/16/2020.

Gibbs, Josiah Willard, Sr. 1840. “A Mendi Vocabulary”. American Journal of Science & Arts 38:1, pp. 44-48.

Pieh, Samuel Hingha.  April 4, 2020.  Personal communication.

Riley, Charles. “Minding Mende” Digital Orientalist. https://digitalorientalist.com/2019/04/12/minding-mende/, accessed 11/15/2020.

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