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Tiyo Soga Translated Pilgrim's Progress into Xhosa

May 03, 2010
Tiyo Soga Translated Pilgrim's Progress into Xhosa

You have heard complaints about the low skills of some teachers in US classrooms, who flunk basic exams. Tiyo Soga's skills were far lower than that when he began to teach other South African children. This led to an early humiliation.

Years before, a Scottish missionary named James Stewart had founded a mission station called Lovedale, which was dedicated to teaching Africans practical skills. Lovedale offered a competitive exam. Whichever "Kafir"* proved best qualified was admitted free of charge. Tiyo's teacher, the Rev. Chalmers decided to enter the young man into the competition.

Given a simple subtraction problem, Tiyo stared in dismay at the figures on the chalkboard. The examiner felt sympathy for the young man. "Take away the lower line from the upper," he suggested. Tiyo brightened. This he understood! He wetted his thumb and erased the bottom line! He was sent back to Tyumi to explain his failure.

William Chalmers was a wise man who saw below the surface. Convinced that Tiyo was above average in moral and spiritual qualities, he spoke to the head of Lovedale, and convinced him to admit Tiyo despite his dismal performance.

Tiyo vindicated Chalmers' trust. By hard, steady application, he rose to second place in each of his classes--except arithmetic. He was able to recite half of the Shorter Catechism in English, proofs and all, without a single mistake. In due time, he studied in Scotland where his spiritual life and academics were far above expectation.

Back in Africa, Tiyo labored to the point of breaking his health: teaching, preaching, raising money for church building. He spent days on the trail, walking from kraal to kraal with the gospel, and confronting godless chiefs. As it happened, his family were prone to tuberculosis. Under the strain of work and poor living conditions, he contracted the deadly disease. Despite failing health, he took on new tasks for the sake of the souls of Africans. For love of his people, he even left a station he had built at great cost to himself, to move further inland among them.

Throughout this time, he worked on a translation of Pilgrim's Progress into Xhosa, adapting the story to fit his people's daily experiences. He believed that the book, with its vivid imagery, would do more to win souls than any other he could prepare. On this day, November 21, 1866, he completed it. Pilgrim's Progress had the impact he hoped, and remains a treasure of the South African church.

Tiyo also aided in revision of the "Kafir" Bible. At his death from tuberculosis in 1871, four gospels were complete. He was only forty-two, having spent his life recklessly for Christ. He proved that early failure can spur final success.

*This was the word commonly used at that time; however, Kafir is from an Arabic word meaning "infidel" and is offensive to South Africans.


  1. Cousins, Henry Thomas. From Kafir Kraal to Pulpit: the story of Tiyo Soga. London: S.W. Partridge, 1899. Source of the image.
  2. Williams, Donovan. Umfundisi: a biography of Tiyo Soga, 1829-1871. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1978.

Last updated April, 2007.


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