The future looks bright: capacity building for Indigenous leaders

By Deb Fox  | Wycliffe Today Spring 2021

In February this year, Dr Philip Townsend was officially inducted as the new Director for the Australia Timor Group (ATG) which oversees the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) at an event in Darwin. (No, he’s not related to his namesake William Cameron Townsend, founder of SIL and Wycliffe!) Phil takes over the role from Alan Rogers, who served faithfully as interim Director for two years. Philip and his wife, Lesli, worked in a central Australian Aboriginal community and then as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. 

Philip says he has spent most of his life as a ‘guest’ in remote, cross-cultural, bilingual contexts, which developed his keen interest in cross-cultural communication and Bible translation:

When I was 15 years old, I sensed God saying I would be a Bible teacher. He directed me to cross-cultural ministry. I became a school teacher and worked for three years in the bilingual school at Pipalyatjara community in the Aangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands) in the north west corner of South Australia. I started to learn Pitjantjatjara and was friends with Paul and Ann Eckert, who were translators among the Pitjantjatjara. I spent most of the next 23 years in Papua New Guinea as a Bible teacher at a bilingual training institution. I spoke the local language called Gogodala and was involved in assisting the Old Testament Bible translation project in that language. 

Philip is passionate about training local people to be involved in the Bible translation process. He says that his experience working alongside local speakers showed him how vital their involvement is:

When I taught in the APY Lands, a new degree was offered by the University of South Australia to enable Anangu speakers to become school teachers. Each day, I worked alongside Aboriginal Education Workers in the school and assisted them in their professional development. Similarly, while I was in Papua New Guinea, I was involved in helping local staff at the training institution to enhance their skills and ran workshops for staff from several related sites. These experiences convinced me that capacity development of local people must be a priority. That applies to the areas of language development, Bible translation and Scripture engagement.

Philip’s doctoral research may offer a key to upskilling Indigenous leaders. In 2016, he finished his PhD which focused on the use of mobile devices by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-service teachers to enhance their professional learning in community-based Initial Teacher Education programs. He shares

The use of mobile devices facilitated their ability, as adults, to be self-directed in their learning regarding place and time of study. Participants believed that use of mobile devices helped them finish work more quickly and fit with elements of their own cultural philosophies. COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns make access to Indigenous language communities difficult for non-residents. Assisting Indigenous colleagues to develop their computer and online skills may facilitate communication with AuSIL staff and enable ongoing language development, Bible translation and engagement with Scripture.

Along with making new connections and implementing new training approaches to support Indigenous learning, Philip is excited about UNESCO’s upcoming Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). This presents potential opportunities for the Bible translation movement. Philip says he hopes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will have opportunities to visit and learn from other indigenous people from around the world who are managing their own activities in language development, Bible translation and Scripture engagement. He is also excited about possible new partnerships and the involvement of more Indigenous people at a higher organisational level:

I pray that structural changes will occur in the ATG so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples join the staff of ATG and have a voice in its leadership and governance.

Please join us in praising God for:

  • AuSIL’s 60th celebration events in Sydney (online,11 September), Melbourne and Alice Springs (both on 9 October) and Darwin (13 November)
  • upcoming printing of two new translations: the Plain English Version and Murrinhpatha (a language in Wadeye, Northern Territory) with dedications likely in early 2022.

Pray for:

  • recruitment of more people with a passion to work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in language development, Bible translation and Scripture engagement
  • UNESCO’s Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) to bring new opportunities and partnerships with language communities.


Photos: Steven Miles

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