Kamba Fule Kpoloe.
Portions of the Book of Common Prayer in Vai.
Translated by Alan Russell Bragg.
Robertsport, Liberia: Douglas Muir Memorial Press, 1937.

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Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Common Forms 1-22
Collects for the Year 23-45
Collects for Saints' Days 45-58
Sundry Other Collects 59-66
Benediction 67-70
Compline 71-80
Litany of the Saints 81-92
Holy Baptism 93-105
Holy Matrimony 106-113
Burial of the Dead 114-122
Burial of a Child 123-129
A Form of Confession 130-131

Historical introduction

Vai is a Mande language spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone; this translation uses a modified Roman orthography rather than the Vai Syllabary used in some subsequent publications.

The following account of the translation and publication of this book is taken from The Spirit of Missions (September, 1938), pp. 348-350:

VAIS RECEIVE SERVICE BOOK—The Rev. Alan R. Bragg, missionary in Liberia since 1933, has translated services, prayers, and litanies for use among people to whom he brings Christ.

Latest in the long and honorable line of translations made by missionaries is a little square 130-page volume containing some occasional services, prayers, and litanies translated into the Vai language by the Rev. Alan R. Bragg of Cape Mount, Liberia. The boys of St. John’s Industrial School, Cape Mount, did the printing and the green cloth binding.

The Vai words are transliterated in English letters with the addition of three non-English characters to indicate certain sounds of e and o and ng beyond the scope of the English alphabet. Wo mu Kamba fule is let us pray.

The book is for use in the hinterland among groups who are being reached by schools and health work supervised from Cape Mount. Mr. Bragg has been carrying on the religious training of the people at these inland centers, under the usual difficulty of having no written or printed teaching material.

He first studied the language in Germany. The Vai tongue seems to be a particularly unruly member of the human communicating equipment. How wayward it is may be seen from these comments by Mr. Bragg:

“When a European hears Vai spoken for the first time it sounds to him only like a rapid succession of ah and eh in which he cannot tell where one word ends and another begins, Vai is preëminently a vowel language. No word ever ends in a consonant. Our letters c, q, r and x do not exist in Vai. Instead, the European has to learn some new combinations, such as another b and d, formed by a quick intake of breath and causing despair to the beginner. The Vai has our regular b and d also.

“Then there are the sounds kp and gb, which cause a heartbreak. These consonants may not be separated in speaking, and kp must be pronounced with a drawing-in of the breath. One feels so foolish when he begins to practice these, producing sounds which no Vai man ever heard in his life, and such sounds as you yourself never dreamed you could eject. When I first tackled kp I made a noise like a cork popping, accompanied by a curious hybrid which was neither a genuine sucking sound nor yet a kiss, surprising myself no end and completely upsetting my teacher’s dignity.

“When one has mastered these sounds—usually before—he proceeds to grammar, and there he fetches up suddenly—because there isn’t any, at least not in our sense of the word. The language seems devoid of rules. The beginner is encouraged when he learns that there are no declensions or conjugations, that the verb has only three tenses: past, present progressive, and future. But this apparent simplicity brings only confusion worse confounded when, a little later, the European hears the Vai using a past when a present would be expected, or a progressive when all laws of grammar would demand a pure present. But there is no pure present.

“There is, besides, a sort of customary tense which corresponds to nothing in English grammar, an imperative mood, and a one-tense subjunctive. Then there is a particle put into a sentence for emphasis quite at random by a Vai man. But you may be sure you will get it into the one possible wrong place.

“Vai logic divides all possessions into natural or acquired, and has two sets of pronouns. Thus, the word for my in my mother, brother, father, hand, foot, et cetera, is different from the word for my in my wife, husband, child, house, strength, et cetera. Verbal objects also do a peculiar shifting dance in Vai conversation.

“Sentence structure is loose in the extreme. One quite ordinarily meets a [348/349] construction which translated would run something like this: When he had called her and then he went . . . Often connectives are omitted altogether, and must be supplied by the sense.

“The crowning glory is the intonation of a Vai sentence. If you try to accent it according to English sentence rhythm, the Vai would not have the faintest idea of what you are seeking to say. He would just sit down and look at you. Every word in the sentence may be perfectly correct in its order, but if you raise and lower your voice in the sentence as you would in English, your meaning will be entirely unintelligible to a native.

“Then there is the added horror of word pitch. Certain words may have absolutely different meanings according to whether they be pitched low, medium, or high. Here is an actually possible sentence in Vai: Na na na an naa—every word the same—only the pitch determines the meaning ….

“After all, a language is the product of the thought of a people: Its roots strike deep. One cannot get it by learning word lists. When one has learned the habits and reactions of a people, their pleasures and their griefs, then it is not long again to acquire the language, for it must be thought in the way they think it.

Not content with adventures in the spoken and written language, Mr. Bragg has also been struggling with Church music. Several other people in the world are working at Church music, and also at secular songs, for some of the African languages. One of the English Sisters at the Holy Cross Mission in Liberia, having achieved certain Church canticles for the boys at Bolahun, was horrified to hear the football team trotting out onto the field singing lustily, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” She found they simply did not know any secular songs.

Mr. Bragg’s report of his struggles with the problem of fitting translated words to [349/350] untranslated tunes would be funny if it probably did not conceal hours of weariness near to despair. The Cape Mount congregation has been trying for fifty years to meet the requirements of the modern European scale but “one is always aware,” Mr. Bragg says, “that the combinations and intervals are foreign to them. And if that is true in an established congregation, how about our Church music in the pioneer work up in the jungle where there is the added difficulty of fitting Vai words to the tunes?

As a partial solution he is making more and more use of plain chant. Sentence and music accents adapt themselves well, and the scale seems nearer to the African scale. Christian missions throughout Africa are working on the problem. Mr. Bragg would be glad to learn of other experiments and solutions. He writes:

“The Vais have some music though their few songs may not be of Vai origin. Their tunes are frequently very beautiful in their simplicity . . . . In the indescribably stillness of a night in the jungle, with the bright silvery moonlight over all, suddenly in the distance there is the muffled beat of the tom-toms, throbbing, throbbing, calling to the dance. Then the music, soft, rich, with its sad-sweet mixture, usually in unison, now and then in thirds, sometimes with a recitative by one man or woman while the rest join in on the chorus, and always the tom-toms, throbbing, throbbing, like a heart beneath it all.

Beautiful as these songs are, they would hardly be suitable in church, even with different words. One naturally thinks, can they not compose some songs, using their own scales, for church use? But the answer is no, not now. Perhaps some day. Music is born out of deep emotion, and we cannot yet expect a people who have had the Christian experience of God, a people whose religion is largely fear, to pour forth their hearts in the music of a rhythm of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

Alan Russell Bragg (born June 7, 1905) studied at St John's College, Winfield, Kansas; the University of Minnesota (MA in Latin and Comparative Philology 1930); Concordia Seminary, St Louis; and the General Theological Seminary 1933; He was ordained to the diaconate in 1933 and to the priesthood in 1934. Following missionary work in Liberia, he transferred to the Diocese of Nova Scotia in February 1951. He was subsequently parish priest at Holy Trinity, Swanton, Vermont (1962-1973).

This translation is not listed in David Griffiths's Bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer 1549-1999 (London: The British Library; New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2002). Other Vai-language Anglican liturgical publications, also not listed in Griffiths, include:

Douglas Muir Memorial Press, St John's Academic and Industrial School, Cape Mount, Liberia
Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments, one psalm, prayers
7 pp.

[Alan R. Bragg] JEIMA-KAMBA-FULE [=Evening Prayer], [Robertsport], pp. 15

[A. R. Bragg and C. Kei Kandakai, transliterated by G. Stewart], title in Vai script = Prayer Book], Boston, U.S.A. pp. 12
Text in Vai script throughout: Introduction, selections from the Book of Common Prayer.

This scan was digitized in 2011 by Richard Mammana from a copy of the original 131-page book provided by the Right Reverend Terry Brown.