The first time Mark* saw a Bible in Crioulo was 20 years ago. He had to haltingly sound out every word, but he was determined to read God’s Word. As a child in the 1970s, he’d had to drop out of school earlier than he would have otherwise chosen; his parents both died and left him with no one to pay for school fees and supplies. He was determined to hang onto what he had learned—mainly the letters of the alphabet and what sounds each makes—in both the official language and Crioulo, which, back in those days, was also taught in schools.
Mark shared with me his experiences reading Crioulo back in November, during a literacy research interview I conducted in the town where he now lives. He and his family are part of one of the largest Protestant churches there.
Mark’s mother tongue is a different language called Balanta. However, like many others in his region of West Africa, Crioulo follows closely after his mother-tongue. Though Balanta was the first language he ever spoke, he’s also spoken Crioulo fluently since childhood. For many in that region, it’s the language of inter-ethnic group communication, of commerce. When I asked him what role the Crioulo language plays in his life, he answered, “It carries great value because it’s my lingua franca. It allows me to have conversations, to communicate with people. I work in the palm oil trade; I go to various villages; I buy palm oil from them; I come to town and sell it. So, Crioulo allows me to have exchanges and opens doors for me anywhere because everyone speaks it.”
It was over 15 years after he’d had to drop out of the school that he saw a Crioulo Bible for the first time. He shares, “I saw people reading, heard them reading in Crioulo at church. … Hearing them made me comfortable because I heard and understood what they read. No one pushed me to read. It was I, myself, that saw them reading and thought, ‘This thing happening here, I too must buy what they’re reading and read too. Because I’m ashamed that I’m sitting here, simply watching them read. I understand all that they’re reading, but I, myself, am not capable of doing what they’re doing. And I don’t have what they have. It’s here at church that I see them reading, and I want to be like them. I too must have this.’ That’s what pushed me to read Crioulo.”
Mark immediately found out where Crioulo Bibles were sold and bought his own copy. When I asked him what it was like to try to read the Crioulo Bible for the first time, he said, “It was not easy. I had to sound out every word, syllable by syllable. I was reading very poorly.”
Mark continued in this way with the Crioulo Bible for a year, when he began to have problems with his eyesight. He says, “Sometimes I read fluently, sometimes I read with great difficulty. It’s an eyesight problem. My eyes really bother me. … Sometimes when I read, I feel like I’ll go crazy. So I stop.”
I asked Mark what made him keep trying to read in Crioulo even when it was difficult. He replied, “The desire to read. … It’s as you read that you grow, actually. When you read the Word of God for yourself, in my opinion, it’s then that you grow spiritually. You can read anytime for yourself; you discover things for yourself. … It was when I started reading the Crioulo Bible that my faith began to get strong. Because when I discover biblical truth myself, I realize what will help me make progress.”
To this day, the Crioulo Bible is the only thing Mark sees written in Crioulo on a day to day basis. He can’t think of any other book or resource in Crioulo that he’s ever seen, other than the syllabary he saw as a boy at school. In literacy for minority language communities, the lack of written material can be a barrier to people learning to read. To become functionally literate, people need lots of reading material with which to practice. And new written materials need to continue to be produced in order to give learners new and interesting things to read which will fuel their learning and desire. And yet, in the case of Crioulo, very little exists apart from the Bible. And for people like Mark, it is the Crioulo Bible which is their primary motivation to read in this language. In fact, reading seems to be a primarily spiritual exercise for Mark.
I then asked Mark about audio Scripture resources in Crioulo. And this is where the interview got even more interesting. This is where I got a glimpse of how seemingly mundane research can be a catalyst for significant personal reflection on the part of the interviewee. This is where God could use the interview questions I was posing to cause Mark to think about how he as a Christian engages with God’s transformative Word.
Mark shared that he owned a memory card with portions of recorded Crioulo Scriptures. I asked which he preferred between the printed Scriptures and the audio Scriptures. He answered, “Well, I prefer the memory card because when I’m out and about, my Bible is back at the house. But I have my memory card with me, and I listen. And also, the memory card explained for me the stories of Paul, Peter, all of that. So it’s what I prefer. I can easily take it on the go. I guess it’s more practical.”
As I’d been doing all throughout my interview with Mark, I was feverishly taking notes on the most important bits of what he was saying. It’s a juggling act as I take notes while also thinking about what my next question should be. The research I’m conducting is qualitative in which I employ a methodology which includes semi-structured individual interviews. This means I am to follow the unique conversational flow with each interviewee, covering the same topics with each person but not necessarily asking the same questions. This requires me to tune in and think on my feet, even as I’m writing down as many live observations as I can, which will be part of the data I analyze.
I then asked Mark if he experienced the same spiritual growth when he listens to Crioulo Scriptures as when he reads them, or if it’s different. His answer: “Yes it’s the same. In my opinion, it’s the same.”
Again, I was feverishly writing and thinking about what question I should pose him next. And then I heard him start to chuckle. He added, “Actually I’ve just now discovered that. I’ve just realized it in answering your questions.”
Mark had never stopped to think much about whether listening to Scripture could allow him to grow in his faith just as reading Scriptures could. Our interview created the space for him to reflect, and my questions were used as a catalyst for him to come to a new realization about how he engages with God’s Word.
Hopefully Mark’s reflection continues. Mine certainly will as I conduct additional interviews and as I begin analyzing all the data I’ve heard and collected.
And hopefully all of us who engage with God’s Word continue reflecting with the Holy Spirit’s help!
*Not his real name