In a West African city that in many ways acts as a bridge between the populations of two countries, there’s a church trying to span the languages and cultures of both. And in that church, there’s a woman whose role it is to help transfer the message so that it is understandable to all.
Esther* is a friendly woman and quickly agreed to let me interview her during my literacy research in her church last year. I had been told that she can read some in Crioulo. At the time of my research, the church was planning to start a Crioulo literacy program. This is what prompted me to include them in my research. I would seek out people to interview who read or wanted to learn to read in Crioulo.
The church’s pastor describes their services as bilingual, French and Crioulo, and the reality is that there are many more languages than just those two spoken by the church’s attendees. French being the official language of the country in which the city is located, and the language of most theological education, it tends to be a default language for official church gatherings, even though a minority of people understand it. Not far from the city is the border with the neighboring country. There, Crioulo is a language that almost everyone speaks and is used for inter-ethnic communication. Many people from that country come to this city and to this church, bringing their cultures and languages with them. So in this multi-cultural and highly multilingual city, this particular church uses primarily French and Crioulo.
Esther serves as translator in this church. In multilingual parts of the world – i.e., places where a person will use multiple languages on a daily basis, depending on the context or the other person with whom he or she is speaking – the role of interpreter is a given. The role is usually not official or accompanied by any special training. It simply arises out of necessity. When many languages are spoken and people speak different, limited combinations of those languages, to varying degrees, people get used to lack of comprehension. People also get used to trying to facilitate better comprehension between people who cannot communicate via a shared language. Often in a multilingual place, no single language is enough to communicate with everyone. Therefore, a message will often need to be interpreted into multiple languages before everyone in a group understands the words.
This of course holds true for the church in multilingual parts of the world. In West Africa, a public worship service invariably features an interpreter—again, often not official or who has training, but a person who simply understands multiple languages and fills a need of others’ comprehension.
Having grown up in this country, all Esther’s schooling was in the French language. She has developed a good mastery of French. I conduct our interview in French, and she seems more fluent than me. However, her mother is from the neighboring country. In Esther’s home growing up, it was Crioulo that was spoken. At church, Esther translates sermons into Crioulo. I asked her which she understood better, Crioulo or French. She said Crioulo. “I speak Crioulo fluently. …French, when I read it, sometimes there are words that are too heavy for me, so I don’t understand. But if it’s with Crioulo, I understand easily.”
As is often the case in this country, Esther’s schooling in French meant that she learned to read in a language she didn’t understand, and that she had trouble when trying to read Crioulo, the language she understood best.
“My problem was that I didn’t know a lot, because… I went to French school. …When we would speak Crioulo at home, I’d always be curious about reading the Bible in Crioulo. But [when I first started] I would sometimes have difficulty. When I would read, I would mix French in with it. So that was my problem. But little by little, now when I read, I don’t have a great deal of trouble. …Also part of the reason I can read in Crioulo… is that we did Crioulo literacy at the church.”
The literacy she mentions at her church was a week of transition literacy. This is done when some people have already learned to read in French. They are taught which letters they already know from French make which sounds in Crioulo, the language they speak fluently but have never written or read. It can be a fairly quick process to make the initial transition from one language to another if there are enough similarities between them. Still, as Esther shared, much practice is needed.
Esther: Yes, sometimes it came easily, but other times it’s difficult. Because, since the alphabet is different, now if I read in Crioulo and I see that this word here, the way I’ve just pronounced it, that’s not right. So I would tend to look in the French Bible, and that way I’d know that this word here is this… that we call it this [in Crioulo].
Kyria: So in the beginning, it was still easier to read in French even if you didn’t always understand?
Esther: Yes, yes. …It’s still easier to read in French, since I studied French. Yes, it’s easy. But all the same, I can read in Crioulo. I get by. Yes, I can get by all right in reading Crioulo.
So, if reading in French still comes more easily for her, why does she continue making efforts to read Crioulo? It’s the difference in understanding for her. Though she and I were carrying on a full conversation in French, I still would choose English Scripture, just as she prefers Crioulo. In Esther’s words, “My husband also has a Crioulo Bible, so sometimes I take it and read. When I read, afterwards I understand sometimes better than the French. Because in the French, there are words that when I read them, I don’t understand. But if I take the Crioulo, I understand. …For example, when I read and I see that I understand, that gives me the desire to continue reading, to discover also different kinds of words that help me to understand well what I’m reading. …Sometimes the French, when I read it, I have to ask the pastor, ‘But this word here, what does that mean?’ But since learning to read in Crioulo, when I read in French and don’t understand, I open the Crioulo Bible, I see that this [French] word here is that [in Crioulo] and it means this. So it’s easy for me, since I already understand Crioulo.”
In Esther’s experience, then, there have been times when she needs to go to the French Bible when having difficulty decoding a Crioulo word, because French decoding is still easier for her. And there are times when she needs to go to the Crioulo Bible when having difficulty understanding a French word, because Crioulo is still easier for her to understand. It is complex. In her multilingual context and with the dynamics of learning first to read in a foreign language, it is not as simple as the Bible in one language only. Multiple people in her bilingual church reported a similar use of both the French and the Crioulo Bibles in preparing messages. In an environment where one uses multiple languages on a daily basis, it should not be surprising that a Christian would need the Bible also in multiple languages.
Esther prepares messages for the church’s regular women’s Bible study. The women who gather don’t all understand Crioulo, and they don’t all understand French. Sometimes Esther translates for those gatherings too. When it’s her turn to give the message, she says sometimes she uses the Crioulo Bible, and other times she uses both the Crioulo and the French, in order to compare the words. Just as in church services, she knows her interpreting and her reading help others to understand better. Many people at the church cannot read in any language. Esther says that as they hear the message translated into a language they understand or hear a Bible passage being read in it, they are happy and “don’t go away empty.”
I asked Esther what advice she would give the people in her church who can’t read, based on her experience.
“If it were me, I would encourage them to learn to read or to find someone else who knows how to read. Because take, for example us women. When you tell a woman, ‘It’s your turn to give the message.’ She tells you, ‘Oh, me? I never went to school.’ I always say, ‘You must not say that you never went to school. If you know a verse, you ask your children to read for you. You listen well. There you can teach. But you must not say, “Since I didn’t go to school, I’ll just stay like this.”’ I always encourage them to be part of the speaking schedule. …One must always encourage people, even if they don’t know how to read, they can ask their children to read for them. Then they’ll understand. Among the women, that’s how we do it. …Even with my mother, it’s like that. They tell her, ‘On such and such Friday, it’s you that will give the message.’ She tells me, ‘Come. Sit beside me.’ She tells me a Bible story that she wants to share with the women. I look for the verses in the Bible. So when we go to the women’s Bible study, she stays next to me. I read, and afterwards she tells the story. She encourages the women. …That’s how we do it, even up until present-day. That’s how we do it with the women.”
What Esther shared with me was rare in the interviews I conducted with Christians. Most focused on how, in their experience, reading was essential for a Christian to grow in his or her faith. Knowing how many cannot read in West African churches, I had begun wondering if those I interviewed had ideas for discipling Christians who could not read, for using their gifts in the church. Esther was one of the first to focus on the ways Christians who can’t read can still participate in the life of the church in meaningful ways.
Her description reminded me of Paul’s image of different parts of the body working together. Getting beyond the literate/ illiterate dichotomy, can the church in such contexts grow together in God’s Word, as readers, speakers, and hearers each play their part in better understanding?
*Not her real name