Below is an excerpt from an interview I conducted as part of my literacy research last year in West Africa. (It has been translated from French into English.) As you read Pastor Gary*’s account of learning to read his mother tongue of Serer-Sine, bear in mind that he had been schooled prior to becoming a pastor. He had enough formal education that he knew how to read and write in French, the country’s official language and the only language taught in school.
Kyria: And it was obvious when you read in church on Sunday here that you’re completely comfortable [reading in Serer-Sine] now; how did that happen? Was it after the literacy workshop that you were able to right away? Or was more required than that?
Gary: Well, it was a bit slow in coming, you know? It took some time. Because it’s not easy to distinguish letters that look or sound similar. When you come across two or three letters that are very close to one another in sound, that’s a bit difficult. For example, there’s the [four different Serer-Sine consonants] ‘c,’ there’s the ‘ƈ,’ there’s the ‘d,’ there’s the ‘ɗ’; that’s really not something you can easily master. It’s going to take you time to review, to see and then review to begin to understand the different letters. It really took some time. And it’s thanks to all that that now, even when we gather as pastors for our theological training courses, I preach in Serer-Sine. I’m used to preaching in Serer-sine. Because it was in starting to preach in Serer-Sine that I began to feel free! I can say and also explain all that I need to.
Kyria: So before the literacy workshop you weren’t used to preaching in Serer-Sine?
Gary: Well I would preach in Serer-Sine, but, well in any case I couldn’t read Serer-Sine. And also, I wasn’t able to write all that I needed to say during the message in Serer-Sine. So in that area too I had difficulty.
Kyria: So now, the notes that you write for yourself before preaching, you write those in Serer-Sine?
Gary: Yes! Even the sermon I preached today, I wrote it out in Serer-Sine. I write all my messages in Serer-Sine, yes.
Kyria: And that wasn’t the case prior to the literacy workshop you attended?
Gary: Right, it wasn’t the case.
Kyria: So, in terms of Christian ministry… what difference has your Serer-Sine reading and writing ability made in your ministry?
Gary: It has made a big difference! It allows me to share the Bible with people properly. It also allows me to speak as I want to, whenever I want. It also allows me to lead a discussion about the Bible without the least complex or doubt as to whether I’m saying something wrong or whether there’s something negative about the way I’m saying it. This also allows me to steer a conversation well. It also allows me to write things down and save them, to make a schedule for myself in terms of my participation in society as well as in my ministry.
I wish you could have heard the freedom in Pastor Gary’s voice and seen it in his body language as he shared his experience with me! His tone and arm gestures communicated the liberation he’d felt as a minister of the gospel once he could do everything in his mother tongue. And yet, this hadn’t occurred automatically just from speaking his mother tongue of Serer-Sine since birth and then being educated in the country’s official language of French. He had to attend a literacy workshop where he was taught what letters in his language’s orthography correspond with which sounds. Even after the workshop, he had to review over and over again, practice and memorize, before he was able to apply his new skills in his everyday life.
Sometimes people are surprised to hear that the skills people in West Africa learn as they’re taught to read the official language of French don’t automatically transfer to their mother tongue, and don’t automatically allow them to read in their mother tongue also. Isn’t reading reading? But the experience of Pastor Gary shows that it’s not an automatic transfer for at least some adult learners. Part of the reason for this is that French is in a completely different language family, bearing very little similarity in sounds to West African languages. Even when a Serer-Sine speaker might recognize a letter from their French reading experience (since both languages are written in the Roman script), that letter often represents a completely different sound in Serer-Sine than it does in French. And there are many unique sounds in Serer-Sine for which they must learn the visual representation for the first time.
What does mother-tongue literacy have to do with equipping leaders of the local church? For Pastor Gary, mother-tongue literacy has meant the difference between feeling handicapped or impaired, and being able to express himself freely as a preacher of the gospel.
*Not his real name