I arrived among the Nuer in November 2005. It was my first mission assignment. I had expectantly waited for that moment throughout many years of training. Now I was there and my first concern was learning the language. I did not hide my trepidation: it was my first non-European language.
My confreres were very helpful and they were a continuous point of reference for me. I made friends with many Nuer youths who endeavoured to teach me their language. Every day I spent hours under the trees conversing with those lads. They loved the publications-project of the Summer Institute of Linguistics: A modern reader in the Nuer language that started in 1982 through the fifth edition in 1994. They made me repeat sentence by sentence hundreds of times. I was also following the thirty-eight lessons of the pedagogical grammar edited in the fifties by Ms. Eleanor Vandevort, an American evangelist who resided in Nassir from1949 to1963. I was constantly referring to the Nuer – English Dictionary by Fr. John Kiggen, a missionary of St. Joseph’s Society and I treasured the 1933 Outline of a Nuer Grammar of the Comboni Missionary, Pasquale Crazzolara.
Nuer people are very proud of their language and culture. They refer to themselves as Nɛy ti naath – the People among peoples – and call their language Thok naath – the tongue of the People-, setting it apart from the other idioms they called the tongue of Dinka or the tongue of Schilluk and so on. A Nuer proverb says Thilɛ thok gua̠ndɛ – a tongue does not have owners, meaning that a language belongs to everyone who uses it. Therefore, Nuer people are very proud to hear other people speaking their language, and the language is the only necessary entry door to become part of their people. Not only that, another Nuer proverb says Thi̠i̠k we̠c ɛ ji̠kɛ – People are the door into the country. However, they do not make it easy for anyone to enter. It is exceptional to find a Nuer who provides a teaching on language for a foreigner, besides the fact that few have the expertise to present the language systematically with proper grammar, syntax and structure explanations.
Even the ethnologist E.E. Evans Pritchard in his renowned book The Nuer; a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people notices it. He says he obtained in Zande-land more information in a few days with the help of a translator than in Nuer-land in as many weeks. He could get no information of Nuer customs through a translator until he himself did learn their language. Moreover, his attempts to dig deep in their culture were persistently obstructed. Nuer are expert at sabotaging an inquiry and until one has resided with them and learnt their language, they steadfastly stultify all effort to elicit the simplest facts and to elucidate the most innocent practises, he remarks. He was living in their camps and had visitors throughout the day, especially youth who liked staying with him in his tent, smoking his tobacco, joking and chatting but were unwilling to discuss serious matters. Although Nuer say, a language does not have owners, it is still a challenge to succeed in owning it.
I started with great enthusiasm. However, I soon realized how arduous Nuer was. I would easily confuse one monosyllabic word from another. I would not hear the different intonations of the seven basic vowels that would produce about eighteen different sounds and many diphthongs. I would not grasp the pattern and the change of the stem-vowel and the final consonant in declension and conjugation. Nouns have three cases: nominative, genitive, locative, and the verbal forms have many irregular cases. Last but not the least, all languages – as Nuer does – often like to be free from grammatical rules for the sake of communication just becuse it sounds better. I found myself building a grammatical hypothesis that was regularly demolished as soon as I used it in conversation. I feared I would never manage to own that language but I persisted in my commitment and the pastoral work helped me a lot. When visiting the outstations of the parish, I was residing with the families using only the Nuer language to communicate. While preaching and teaching, I would speak as best as I could and then ask someone to repeat what I said. In this way, I could check whether I made myself clear, I made some mistakes and how I could correct and improve my communication skill. It was really a patient work. I found strength realizing that people appreciated my effort. Studying their language, I was getting closer to them and little by little, I was winning their sympathy. The language at the beginning was a barrier; suddenly, it became the means to build up relationships. I became aware how important listening was especially to the Church leaders and catechists with whom I was spending most of my time. Their way of expressing was so different from mine! They helped me to break through my European mind-set and getting closer to a Nuer mind-set.
A language is not only a number of expressions. Any language expresses also the mind-set and culture of the people using it. Therefore, mastering a language means owning also the culture and mind-set of a people. Let us take a few examples. A Nuer would not greet a person by wishing a good morning or a good day, but by offering her peace and by asking are you there? The answer: Yes, I am here. This because Nuer do not have any expectations for the future, they just live trusting in the present. What is important is to be alive now and to be in peace with others now that is all. Nuer do not have either a word to say thanks. They simply say good, which means what you have done is good. Acknowledging a good deed, sounds like saying it was your duty to do it; it was good that you did it for the community. A final example. In the Nuer language, there is only one word to say I need, I wish, I want. This fact made me think that, in their culture, Nuer people would not wish what they do not need and do not ask what they do not need. Therefore, it is not rude saying I want that, because it simply means I need it. Likewise, the word love does not recall a romantic feeling towards someone, but the will of agreeing with, of caring for someone. It is not as much as about feelings, but about the attitude of one’s life. Will you do as I told you? Yes, I do; I agree with you; I accept it; I like it; I love it. Since you say all these actions with one word, there is no dichotomy between what a person wishes and what she actually does. If someone did not do something, it is because he/she did not wish it, did not agree with it, did not love it. Love is not a feeling but an action someone actually does. Similarly, there are no words in Nuer to speak about ideals or abstract realities. A Nuer would not speak about justice, but about a fair, just or good behavior, about duties and responsibilities.
Learning the Nuer language, I got interested in their oral literature. It is so rich with songs, proverbs, riddles, tales and myths. It carries a wisdom that oriented the behavior of so many generations. Many times oral literature, being part of traditional society, holds to conservative values and fears transformation. Other times instead it reveals what people and society need to change. This is the point of encounter with the Gospel, which is always change-oriented. Therefore, during the courses for catechists and Church leaders, besides reading and commenting together the Holy Scriptures, we started collecting traditional proverbs and folktales. It took six years work to publish the collected material into “Nuer Folktales, Proverbs and Riddles” book.
Why should a missionary engage in collecting and preserving the oral literature of a people? Could he not simply replace it with the Gospel narratives answering in a more appropriate way to the modern challenges of a given society?
Well, evangelization is not just replacing old clothes with new ones. Missionaries should be sensitive in respecting the identity of people they evangelize. The language and the oral literature are the vehicles of the culture and the identity of each ethnic group. They shape the way the people think, they fix values and orientate patterns of behavior. There are certainly parts of traditional society, which hold to conservative values and fear transformation. Actually, continuous changes press on a society, often undermine the identity of the people and provoke a void sub-culture. The need to hold onto solid roots is great. However, change is sometime unavoidable and in some cases, it is most needed. The challenge is about making the right steps, promoting a transformation that is deeply rooted in the identity of the people.
While the Gospel is always change-oriented, it does not throw away the old for the new, it rather promotes a transformation from within the culture re-interpreting it in the new context, both at social as well at spiritual level. Pope Francis states it very clearly in the message for the 2015 World Mission Day: “Today, the Church’s mission is faced by the challenge of meeting the needs of all people to return to their roots and to protect the values of their respective cultures. This means realizing that all peoples and cultures have the right to be helped from within their own traditions to enter into the mystery of God’s wisdom and to accept the Gospel of Jesus, who is a light and transforming strength for all cultures”. In this way being a true Nuer, a true Dinka, or true Bari is the starting point to accept Christ and become a true Christian.
On the other hand, there is a new emerging concern, everywhere and even strongly in Africa. National identity is somewhere endangered by restrictive tribal belonging. The Church’s concern is to form in the people a greater and universal identity that goes beyond the small tribal identity. The Church has a special mandate to promote both an interethnic Christian identity and a positive identification with one’s own culture. In fact, those who feel that their language and culture are under-estimated tend to see diversity as a threat, fear changes and under some circumstances might react violently. Those instead who are well rooted in their own culture are also more capable to create cross-cultural relationships. Conflict in South Sudan has often erupted from little understanding, false communication, poor esteem within communities fueling deep frustration.
For this reason, language is deeply relevant also in the advocacy process. To empower people to defend and strengthen their human and social rights, it is not enough to be able to exchange properly experiences and ideas; there is a need also of talking the language of people which their narratives, imaginaries, worldview and mind-set. Daniel Comboni passionately cried out Africa or death in his attempt to regenerate the people of Africa. Likewise, people committed in advocacy, grasping how identity of a given people is deeply rooted on their language and culture should build any sincere dialogue in a boldly statement: mother tongue or death!