Hyena, Walking Sticks and Missionaries
By Richard Chowning
"Our sins will eat us. That is why a sacrifice used to be offered to remove the bite of sin whenever sickness or drought was overtaking our people. The sacrifice is no longer offered but our sins and their penalty remain. Only Christ, the sacrifice offered by God, can take away the sting of our sins."
That is a cultural anecdote employed by Kipsigis evangelists in Kenya. A recent Kipsigis convert said, "These men preach as no others. They make us understand the Gospel by comparing it to some of our own beliefs and practices." Many of the more than 1,800 faithful Kipsigis Christians would make a similar observation.
The Use of Cultural Anecdotes and the Church in Kipsigis
The use of cultural anecdotes and illustrations has contributed to the steady growth and stability of the church in Kipsigis. It will help communication in any culture. Anecdotes from the Bible or fabricated tales of the missionary can be used with some success, but yarns and riddles already in use in a particular culture are the most effective. Missionaries ought to use them.
Kipsigis evangelists use cultural anecdotes because they observed the expatriate's rudimentary use of them years ago. Much of the style and content used by national evangelists in third-world countries is patterned after the presentations of the foreign missionaries.
Many missionaries present their lessons on the mission field in much the same manner they would back home in the United States. The vocabulary may be simpler and the lessons narrower, but their illustrations come from the Bible or from western culture. Such preaching and teaching is not as advantageous as that which is couched in the listeners' culture.
The Use of Cultural Anecdotes
When cultural anecdotes are used, more converts may be expected from the ranks of the traditionalists, for it is their values and folklore which are being employed. They understand the message quick. In many countries large percentage of the converts are just switching from one denomination to another. This is most often the result of preaching that lacks identification with the tribal culture.
Converts are more committed when they understand the Gospel and its implications in the context of their own culture.
The use of cultural anecdotes demonstrates to the community that Christianity is not ignorant of, nor totally opposed to, their cherished rites and beliefs. The lack of their use can stifle a movement. Initially, the movement will attract some fringe people, maybe even large numbers of them, but the masses of pagans will not be able to understand the message. The African Inland Church, of this generation, in Kenya has failed to attract traditionalists because of the church's anti-culture stand.
Large pockets of traditionalist are responding to a message - punctuated with indigenous illustrations - that is, being preached by Church of Christ evangelists who are Kipsigis tribesmen. The words of one new convert make it clear. "I heard preachers before but their message never made sense. These new preachers are understandable. They of Christ and our way of life."
Third-world people have a special respect for the storytellers of the community. Crowds will sit for hours listening as they recount history or tradition. The best story tellers are given chief seats at festivals and ceremonies. They are the traditional teachers. Each of their stories has a moral.
Evangelists who use cultural anecdotes and stories are, in a like manner, received enthusiastically by non-believers.
More Advantages of Anecdotes
When cultural illustrations are used, the missionary not only teaches well but he opens the door for his own learning. The listeners often chime in with other bits of folklore in response to a culture punctuated lesson. There is competition to tell a story better, to tell a better story, or just to share in the story telling. The lesson is thus illustrated several times in a single session. I come away with more examples for future use. Most importantly, when a missionary continually makes use of cultural anecdotes, the national evangelists around him will follow suit, gaining the respect and understanding of their listeners.
Kinds of Anecdotes
There are several kinds of anecdotes which can be used in teaching. The most obvious is stories, myths or fables. Sometimes the major characters are people, though more often they are animals (see "Seed Bearing Lamb"). The lessons learned by these characters are supposed to be lived by the listeners.
A Kipsigis Story
Kipsigis tell the story of a woman who was weeding in her corn field. She heard hunters shout in the forest bordering the corn field. She looked up from her hoeing and saw a hyena rushing out of the forest into her field. The hyena lumbered up to the woman and said, "Please have mercy on me and hide me from the hunters. They will kill me."
The woman picked up her sweater from the ground. "Lie down, and I will cover you." The hyena was hidden just as the hunters emerged from the forest.
"Did you see the hyena? Which way did he go?"
"He ran through my field and over that distant bluff," the woman replied.
The hunters ran off. As soon as they were out of sight, the woman lifted her sweater off the hyena. In an instant the animal pounced on the woman and devoured her.
The story is an excellent illustration of the result of hiding sin. The story has been told again and again through the years, and each time it is received enthusiastically. In Africa, good stories never wear out with repeated telling.
Proverbs and Riddles
Proverbs and riddles are short and to the point. They add sharpness to any lesson. They explain truths already accepted by the tribesmen. When proverbs and riddles are used, agreement between traditional values and values in the Kingdom of God are highlighted.
"Two walking sticks cannot scorch in the fire at once. One will be burnt and the other neglected," say the Kipsigis.
That is in agreement with the Christian teachings which say one is not able to walk after the spirit and the flesh; nor walk in the light and the darkness; nor have fellowship with God and demons.
Historical facts are helpful illustrations. The Kipsigis relate the fact that years ago the Orgoiyot, or chief diviner, warned warriors not to do battle with the enemy tribe at Mogori. The warriors thought they were brave enough to conquer any foe, so they went to battle without the Orgoiyot's blessing. The Kipsigis warriors were slaughtered; only a few returned.
That battle has been retold through the years to teach that people should not step out on tasks that are not blessed. "How much more ill fortune and calamity will, in this age and the age to come, befall Christians who do deeds that are not blessed by God."
Historical facts like this one are potent teaching aids. Comparing traditional rites and rituals with those in the Old Testament help African Christians understand the ancient scriptures and, more importantly, it prepares them to comprehend the New Covenant, which was foreshadowed in the Old.
Christianity is a religion of people and relationships. Traditional third-world cultures have intricate webs of relationships. The relationships involve respect, responsibility and sometimes fear. The respect that a Kipsigis young person must show to his father is a starting point in teaching the relationship between God and the human race. The responsibility and camaraderie one has for a fellow circumcision initiate is similar to the fellowship between Christians. The fear that Kipsigis associate with those who have communication with the evil spirits of the dead pints to the Biblical understanding of the consequence of flirting with evil.
Etymology of Words
Relating the etymology , the historical roots, of words in the mother tongue of third-world people is useful. Such teaching adds extra credibility to the teacher, who is an outsider. Most speakers of a language do not know the derivation of the words and common expressions they use.
One such understanding I often shared with the Kipsigis was the phrase they used for forgiveness, nyoetab kaat. It comes from an abbreviated description of the blood coming from the throat of a sacrificial animal. This particular etymology fits neatly with the Biblical understanding the forgiveness stems from Christ's shed blood.
Further, the teacher is given respect for knowing more than the common man about the roots of the language. Further, the discovery of a new lesson in a familiar word adds to the ability of the listeners to retain a lesson.
Accumulating a repertoire of various kinds of anecdotes is worth the effort.
Riddles, proverbs, stories and other illustration can be found in published ethnography's.
Historical volumes about the country or people may reveal useful material. Missionaries should study these sources.
Anecdotes can be discovered by asking the people what they you do to try to bring an end to a famine, celebrate a birth or bury the dead? Do they observe such practices as anointing, scapegoating or disfellowshiping?
Here are some ways to learn from this primary source, the people:
Use the few anecdotes you already know and the nationals will volunteer more.
Pay special attention to conversations between non-Christians. They use the above cultural material often. Spend time in casual conversation with them.
Make time to collect anecdotes. Set some goals. This involves listening. Periods before meetings begin, meal time and the drive to and from meetings are informal times when an intent ear can pick up many illustrations from the conversations between nationals.
In the beginning of your gleaning, set a goal in terms of the hours each week or month you will spend listening for anecdotes.
Once anecdotes are acquired they can be easily forgotten. A filing system organized by subjects may be useful.
However, in themselves, files are of little practical use. The best way to make an your own is to use it. You do not appear as a child to your listeners, in Africa, if you repeat an anecdote an hour after someone in the same group told it. You are seen as one who has understood the mystery of story, proverb or riddle.
Do not save your anecdotes for sermons and lessons, utilize them in common conversation. This is a often missed point where missionaries need to identify with African people. Third-world people rarely speak directly to a point. They come around to it by way of anecdotal material.
Anecdotes must be told clearly. They normally teach simple truths. Commonly used words and short sentence are normally clearer than complex language.
Anecdotes should concern experiences or knowledge common to the listeners. The advantage in the use of illustrations is that you are starting with the familiar as an aid in the understanding of the Good News.
Obscure anecdotes do not serve well. The anecdote must draw attention to the specific point it is illustrating. The suspense, mystery or humor must surround the point being clarified.
Anecdotes are used to aid understanding, but some are especially useful in grabbing the attention of listeners. These anecdotes usually center around the themes of death, wealth or taboos. I teach a lesson about openness of Christianity. The church hides nothing. I begin by telling about my frequent encounters with the local Orgoiyot (diviner). When he flags me down for a ride to town, I pull up and let him in. As soon as he is seated I say, "How are you, Orgoiyot?" My listeners start laughing. They laugh because villagers are not supposed to openly acknowledge a diviner. His profession is secret. By talking about my breaking the taboo, I gain the attention of my listeners. They now are ready to hear how we Christians reveal our rites and their functionaries to those who wish to know.
Third-world people love anecdotes, but some warnings must be heeded:
When a traditional belief or practice is compared to the truth in Christ, missionaries need to be aware that they are treading on one of the breeding grounds of syncretism. The differences between traditional and Christian systems should be sharply contrasted.
Some anecdotes cannot be used in mixed audiences of men and women or young and old. These anecdotes frequently focus on sex or secrets held by a particular group in society. I'll never forget when, in early ignorance, I started talking about child birth in connection with the vision of John in Revelation 12. Men smiled, attempting hold back a laugh, while women turned their heads in embarrassment. One old woman stood up and walked out of the hut.
A missionary among traditional people who fails to use anecdotes, culturally relevant anecdotes, runs the risk of not being understood. As the Kipsigis say, "An elephant who does not learn to drink water through his trunk will die." Missionaries who fail to use indigenous illustration in an oral society, will fail to communicate.
copyright, Richard Chowning, 1983