Do you know someone who made a deep impression on you by their continuous willingness to work on behalf of others with joy, dedication and diligence? These are the unsung heroes. Those who teach Sunday School year after year, piano lessons, coach the teams of little league and soccer, lead Scouting groups and 4-H groups, all volunteer and with little training, thanks or appreciation. There are unsung heroes in Malawi, too. One such group is the Sunday School teachers. This is one team who work training and encouraging them.
They are working with a missionary/pastor from New Zealand, Jim Young, who first started here with Scripture Union. Over the years he’s been here he’s seen the numbers of children coming to church, and Sunday Schools in particular, steadily increase. Forty-five percent of the population of Malawi is under the age of fifteen (as compared to the US where it is just 13% of the population). While the children may come to churches in large numbers there are few people who are equip to engage, lead or instruct them. Those who are willing to teach (or get “volunteered” by their pastors) are asking for help from pastors and people like Jim to give them some training, structure and curriculum to impart to the children. Jim’s team has developed some training sessions of 3-4 hours in which they show them how to use some curriculum that’s been translated into chichewa with some visual aids, along with a variety of methods for Scripture memorization and teaching methodology to engage the wide age span that is attending.
So where do I fit in with this? Having shared with Jim a little about Bible storytelling and the training I attended in Orlando last October, he asked if I’d be willing to talk to his team, tell a story and teach them about oral telling. I was delight but I also felt a little silly to be teaching natural-born storytellers about how to tell a story. They were very eager and enthusiastic to listen, learn and began telling the story to one another. They invited me to join them for two training sessions they were doing that weekend here in Lilongwe. One in this church (shown above), the other in a classroom of a school that is part of a church (shown below). (The “desks” and their “benches” are made of bricks and cement, thus immoveable. There was one blackboard and lots of student/teacher made diagrams on the walls. Supplies are in short supply so its reuse, repurpose, recycle and be creative about doing things that don’t need “stuff”)
I was invited to participate by telling a story and sharing some ways they could help the children learn the story (acting it out, retelling it in parts, pantomiming it) which all had to be done through a translator. I was quite surprised by the willingness to engage any time we asked for volunteers to come and participate so we could actually model the different methods. In my experience adults don’t ever like to participate in such things but here there was such an eagerness to learn that they were very willing. Again, I felt a little out of place telling stories to a culture that is steeped in oral traditions and storytelling and wished I could understand them as they retold the story in their own language.
It was such a honor to be invited and to participate with this group of young people, so eager, fresh and enthusiastic about what they are doing. I felt my role was more to empower them to use what they already know and can easily do but don’t understand its value, importance or worth. The education system and methods of formal learning in general seem to be more of a rote, memorization model rather than a socratic methodology or inquiry based learning. For example, when I asked why storytelling might be a good method to use in Africa, and especially with children, while they did volunteer several answers, the obvious ones of children’s fragile emergent reading skills, limited access to written materials and preference for learning through orality were not even mentioned.
After this weekend Jim asked me to come back and share some more stories with his team and any other ways they could integrate oral telling into their training sessions before they went on several training trips around Malawi. Again I was very excited to be a part of encouraging storytelling, interact with their team and work through the challenge of finding culturally sensitive ways to engage with stories in the Bible. Like most of what we have found so far, implementation of anything looks very different when your not in your own culture. It challenges you to be open to learn from and with others. So you have to be willing to “fly by the seat of your pants” a bit, laugh at yourself a lot and enjoy the ride. As I try to do that, beauty and wonder surprise me in how many different ways humans adapt things to fit their needs while expressing their own cultural character. It is one of the things that makes life here so colorful and interesting!