News travels fast in an oral culture

In November of 2012 a group of people celebrate as one woman proudly holds up the New Testament in Naro and another woman and man hold up the audio Scriptures.

Bible sto­ry­ing taps into the lifeblood of an oral cul­ture, and the sto­ries travel sur­pris­ingly fast.

Ethno-com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant Durk Mei­jer re­calls a man he met at a Bible sto­ry­ing work­shop from the Himba com­mu­nity in north­west­ern Namibia. “He was ed­u­cated, spoke Eng­lish and uses Face­book – he’s a mod­ern guy. He learned four Bible sto­ries im­me­di­ately to retell.”

When Durk used a dif­fer­ent ap­proach – teach­ing prin­ci­ples rather than sto­ries – the man strug­gled to re­mem­ber what he heard and retell it.  Durk has ob­served this is a com­mon chal­lenge among oral learners.

“We’re help­ing people…​engage with God’s Word in their own way,” ex­plains Durk.

Tech­nol­ogy is in­creas­ing this en­gage­ment even fur­ther. South­ern Africans liv­ing in re­mote ar­eas, in­clud­ing many San peo­ple, have em­braced the mo­bile phone as a per­fect method for do­ing what oral cul­tures love: shar­ing stories.

Se­bas­t­ian Floor, di­rec­tor of Wycliffe South Africa’s Re­gional Trans­la­tion Services,re­ports that even with­out wide­spread ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, peo­ple find a way to charge their phones. They also climb moun­tains or travel long dis­tances to get a net­work sig­nal. Such ob­sta­cles are no match for a de­sire to com­mu­ni­cate.

“It’s amaz­ing!” ex­claims Se­bas­t­ian. “We are find­ing that sto­ries done orally spread very quickly.”

One way oral Bible sto­ry­ing dif­fers from writ­ten trans­la­tion is that less lan­guage analy­sis needs to be done at the out­set. Bible sto­ries can be pre­pared quickly and checked by a con­sul­tant right away.

“Ba­si­cally the [oral] trans­la­tion work gets done at the story work­shops,” Se­bas­t­ian says.

While oral sto­ry­ing is a startup strat­egy for Wycliffe South Africa’s Re­gional Trans­la­tion Services (RTS), it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a sub­sti­tute for writ­ten trans­la­tion. It of­ten pre­pares a com­mu­nity for a full Bible trans­la­tion project.

“But the main ad­van­tage,” says Se­bas­t­ian, “is that it gets God’s Word out to com­mu­ni­ties very quickly.”


By Elyse Patten
Photo: Zeke du Plessis

Re­turn to the ar­ti­cle Sto­ries and Broth­er­hood: Bible Trans­la­tion in South­ern Africa to read more.