Opinion: Writing-Illiteracy amongst Pastors in East Africa
WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic
November 14, 2018
by Jim Harries
(Examples come from Kenyan Swahili)
If literacy describes a basic ability to read and write in any particular language then its levels amongst African pastors are probably rising in many countries. That language will most likely be a European language, such as English. If it implies the ability to communicate clearly within one’s own community in written form, then literacy rates may be falling. Literacy should be considered with respect to “in which language.” To be literate in a language that is not relevant in the context in which one is living, is in a sense not literacy at all. Literacy in a non-native language may even be counter-productive to indigenous contexts, as here explored in the ecclesial context of East Africa.
Many African pastors daren’t write public material in English for a variety of reasons. They fear their lack of acumen in written English will have others judge them. Writing may expose their lack of education, or people may wonder how they can write so “poorly,” given their level of education. (Oral use of a language is much more forgiving than is written expression.)
Use of English leaves the major task of translation (to more familiar languages) to church members, whose levels of literacy are probably diverse. Questions remain as to which indigenous term is being represented by a particular English word.
Because African English is rooted in indigenous languages and contexts, even a simple issue like time, gets quite complicated. Orally stating a start time of 9 a.m. may be understood as 11 a.m., given African understandings of time-keeping. But a written record of “9 a.m.” could travel more widely to people who take 9 a.m. to mean an actual 9 a.m.
Written time is further rendered ambiguous because two systems of time operate in parallel in East Africa. When speaking in English, the English clock is used, whereby noon is 12 o’clock. Using non-English languages, noon is 6 o’clock.
Whereas orally, the use of numbers is easy to distinguish, for example sita (Swahili) as against six (English). Sita communicates noon in English, whereas six (a translation of sita into English) communicates 6.00 am. Writing the digit 6 implies English (the numeric writing system comes with English) but this may not always be the correct interpretation. Writing more complex numbers, e.g. 7:30, in full in Swahili (saa saba na nusu), while it clarifies the language issue, can be very long winded. Hence translation of “meeting starts at 12” into Swahili could be mkutano utaanza saa 12, or mkutano utaanza saa 6, or mkutano utaanza saa sita.
Difficulty rises exponentially with more complex issues. For example, in counselling married couples, to say mama mkubwa aongoze is OK. But to say “the senior wife is to lead” threatens to expose a church’s practice of condoning polygamy to the wider world. To counsel a man that he should buy flowers for his wife, is clearly advice from the West that won’t make sense to many in Africa. Mume amnunulie mkewe maua, expresses the same instruction in a way that sounds much more serious, but is thus more confusing. In addition, the term, maua, being much more inclusive than “flowers,” leaves the Swahili version ambiguous as to just what should be bought.
When it comes to theological matters, “We believe that the Holy Spirit is a person,” is clear in English, but hard to express in Swahili. Directly translating, Roho Mtakatifu ni mtu, would be taken as clearly wrong. It would be like saying in English that “the Holy Spirit is a human being.”
In talking about healing, the Swahili term, amepona, implies cooling of or temporal avoidance of an issue (that issue often arising from heated intense attack by spirits or witches). Yet the dominant English translation is “he (she) has been healed.” Use of such English constantly gets African people into trouble, for example when “healed” people subsequently die. Amepona is very difficult to express in English, just as “healed” is hard to express in African languages.
All the above contribute to a great reluctance to engage in contextually relevant literacy in Africa today. I want to briefly explore some implications of the resulting illiteracy in contexts in which written English is widely available. The reluctance of local people to write using English contributes to literature being dominated by those locals who have high levels of training from outside of Africa, and foreigners. Highly trained nationals who do write, being aware of the kinds of pitfalls we have mentioned above, tend (to be safe) to write as if they are targeting a non-indigenous audience.
There is an ongoing greater dependency on orality than would be the case if local literacy was possible. This has been enhanced by new oral technologies, such as the wide-spread of the mobile phone. The lack of indigenous literacy severely limits the possibility of indigenous understanding being communicated over space and time. Hence a glass ceiling is imposed on the development of local theologies, counselling, pastoral advice, and other areas of ecclesial life.
The predominance of literature being foreign means that learning to train in church ministry, always happens in parallel with learning about America and the UK. This has various impacts, including that it skews theological (and other) education in East Africa to being an imitation of the West.
The skills of local people are severely neglected. Only those very gifted local people who obtain advanced education become sufficiently literate to contribute to local literacy, which in effect must continue to be a sub-branch of the literacy of the UK and America. Those gifted people who do achieve such levels of literacy are obliged, or oblige themselves, into being careful to write for foreign audiences (as above). A hierarchy of church leadership is established, all the top rungs of which are occupied by highly-foreign-trained people.
The above scenarios are, I suggest, severely limiting to healthy indigenously-rooted growth of African Christianity. When a European language is used for making decisions and setting courses of action, the ability to communicate in that language will be hampered by its rootage in non-indigenous contexts.