Mbeya Planning Meetings

March 4, 2014 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language, Tanzania

After spending a week in Dar es Salaam and a week in Dodoma, we flew to Mbeya for planning and review meetings with the team serving 13 language communities throughout Mbeya, Iringa and Njombe regions. This project, with the potential to impact 2.5 million speakers of the 13 languages, was started in 2003 and currently has around 70 staff working both in Mbeya town and in the surrounding communities.

Several of the translation teams are moving forward fast and approaching the completion of the New Testament in their languages, hopefully in the next 3 years. At the same time, some of the other languages have recently begun the process of developing writing systems, and are hoping to start translating the first Scripture portions in the next year or two. Read the rest of this entry →

“It’s like a miracle”

November 28, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language

Last year I spent two weeks in Zambia’s Western Province, training a group of people to survey the languages of their vast province as they sought to start developing their languages and translating the Bible into them. Since then I have been excited to see the rapid and encouraging progress that the team has made.

Recently the project was featured on BBC World Service, and on the BBC website, with the website article particularly focusing on the Shanjo people and their language, ciShanjo.

“It’s like a miracle,” says Hastings Sitale, recalling how he felt when he saw a booklet written in ciShanjo, a language he had only ever spoken before. Read the rest of this entry →

Bible engagement in oral communities

May 27, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Bible, Church, Culture

Last week as part of the MA in Bible and Mission that I am doing we were discussing oral cultures and how people from these cultures engage with the Bible. There are billions of people around the world who can’t read, don’t read, or for whom reading is not their preferred way of engaging with information.

As part of the course Eddie led us through a discussion of how oral learners often see the world very differently to literate learners, with the help of a very informative e-book, Making Disciples of Oral Learners (pdf, 954KB). While a literate person may think very linearly, an oral person will often tend to think more holistically and circularly. While a literate person likes to think in terms of abstract statements, an oral learner sees truth in terms of relationships often expressed through stories. While a literate learner can give and receive information on his own, or with a small group of specially selected partners, an oral learner is dependent on the community of people who are physically with him in time and place.

These differences are important to be aware of as the vast majority of Christians who are trying to communicate the good news about Jesus to people in oral cultures are themselves highly literate, and used to processing information in a written format using literate thought processes. When it comes to communicating the Bible it can be easy for someone from a highly literate culture to assume that the oral learner thinks as they do and will engage with the Bible as they do. But this is by no means true.

Apart from the obvious difference that literate people will tend to read the Bible when oral learners prefer to listen, the literate person is much more likely to dissect parts of Scripture, systematise and structure it and to prefer to read parts of the Bible that more easily lend themselves to these practices. As a result highly literate people tend to focus to a large extent on Paul’s letters in the New Testament.

Oral learners on the other hand are more likely to hear the narrative of Scripture, seeing it as a whole and placing each part within the wider context. They will have much more tolerance for ambiguity, viewing the narrative as a complex relational whole which cannot be reduced to a system or simplistic structure. Oral learners may tend to focus on the narrative parts of the Bible, as well as the wisdom literature.

Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, but as with any cultural differences we can learn a huge amount as we become aware of the perspectives of others and our own biases. As the church engages with people of different cultures it is vital to be aware of how people view the world and how they learn, not simply assuming that everyone is the same as us. The e-book points out that many times when communities have been assumed to be highly resistant to the gospel the use of oral learning methods, including Chronological Bible Storying, has shown that the community is in fact merely struggling with the literate ways in which it has been communicated and is very open to the good news about Jesus when it is presented in an appropriate way.

A final point to note is that while we may tend to think of oral cultures as being located in Africa and Asia, the post-modern West is in many ways becoming increasingly post-literate. A large number of people in Europe and North America don’t read a single book after finishing school (58% in the US according to the e-book) but instead take in information largely through images and audio-visual media. As the church in the UK is largely middle-class and generally geared towards highly literate people, how much can it learn from its brothers and sisters around the world and the ways that they engage oral communities with the good news about Jesus?

Storying Workshop

Pastors in Mbeya, Tanzania, acting out the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac (April 2004)

Storying Workshop

Storying Workshop

The ram caught in the bushes (in case it wasn't obvious...)

Multilingual and Multicultural Education

May 5, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Culture, Language

Education, and the role of charities and other organisations in trying to provide education in poorer countries, has been in focus lately because of the Three Cups of Tea scandal. Schooling the World has a fascinating post asking some difficult questions as to the benefits and dangers of bringing education (if by education we mean a traditional western-style schooling) to indigenous communities around the world.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. …

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.” Read more

I believe that education is an important part of development work and coming alongside people who are struggling to escape poverty. But we must be very careful not to confuse education with a one-size-fits-all Western schooling system, counting bodies through the conveyor belt as an indicator of success and progress.

I firmly believe that education must be done in culturally appropriate ways, with input from community leaders as well as from outside educators, and vitally that it must be done at least initially in the mother-tongue of the child. This is why one of the focuses of SIL International, a partner organisation of Wycliffe who we are working with, is to come alongside communities and governments to help them develop multilingual education programs that are appropriate for minority language communities.

The above post finishes with the example of the Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, for whom a school building was built but is not being used. Rather than decrying the fact that children are not in school, the author points out that in fact Kyrgyz children are being educated, but not in a traditional school.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction. Read more

You can find out more about SIL’s work in literacy and education on their website, and also take a look at a blog of Matt and Liz, friends of ours who are preparing to work with the Ugandan government, helping them to develop education programs in appropriate languages and cultural settings for minority language communities in Uganda.

Hand writing

Unlocking the scriptures

March 26, 2008 in Mark, Bible translation, Tanzania

I was working in Tanzania with Wycliffe from 2004-2006, doing something called Language Survey. On one of our survey trips we went to Mara Region in the north of Tanzania, to see what languages were spoken there and what the need was for Bible translation.

One of the languages, Kuria, already had a New Testament translated by the Bible Society, so we looked into whether additional translations were needed for the various dialects of Kuria, and decided that the one translation should suffice. However, the translation wasn’t being used by the people – most of the copies were sitting in a storehouse.

Recently I read this story from colleagues in Tanzania, which is an encouragement that the scriptures are now just starting to be used! Pray that these men and thousands of others like them would learn to read and love the Kuria scriptures, and that God would use them to draw people into a closer relationship with him.