We had the first Iski-language literacy class the other day! The school day started out like you might expect, everyone smiling and excited, all the students dressed in their best clothes, and the entire population of our village lined up in the “town square” to shake the hands of the teachers and all the students…oh, wait…you weren’t expecting that? Yeah, well, neither were we! These guys are taking this whole literacy thing pretty seriously, let me tell you!
For the sake of full disclosure, though it was a cool demonstration of their excitement to learn, it should be said there is a deeper aspect to this “community togetherness” that is sad as well. One of the bedrock beliefs in Iski culture is that they can ensure blessing on themselves and their endeavors by showing solidarity and being unified. Disagreements and disunity are considered the leading causes of sickness, death, and failed endeavors among the Iski. Another related example of this belief is that the night before the first class, each family in the village brought a bowl of food to each of the students as a way of saying, “There is no disagreement between us, and now this work will go well.”
Seriously, our people are putting a LOT of stock in this literacy program. So much so, that they have made up a few rules to help it along! Some people say that for the 15 weeks that they’ll be in the class, the students shouldn’t be allowed to have any family or visitors come stay with them.* Others think that neighbors aren’t even supposed to visit with them in the afternoons, because they “might cause them to forget what they’re learning.” We’ve even heard rumors that couples have been pressured to remain completely celibate during the entire course, or else they will pose a major risk to its success.**
I’ve said before that our village was constructed for the sole purpose of getting missionaries and hearing God’s Word. That’s completely true. But I think sometimes when people back in the West hear that, they think that our people have somehow erased all their previous beliefs and are going about their lives in a sort of blissfully expectant vacuum, like they are blank canvases awaiting the first brush strokes of the Gospel, or something. It doesn’t really work like that.
Even though our Iski friends have a deep desire to have God’s Word explained to them, their experiential reality is still interpreted by the beliefs that were passed down to them by their ancestors. The Gospel has yet to shine light into their darkness, and so many of their motivations and assumptions about what it will mean for them when they DO hear God’s Word are twisted and tainted by their current worldview.
Their ancestors told them that if they followed the old ways exactly then they wouldn’t have to work anymore and they would live forever. Their gardens would grow as if by magic and their bodies would remain forever young. That hasn’t worked out well for them, and they are kind of sick of the old rules, so they are very excited to have us here getting ready to present a new message, but for most of them, their eyes are still looking for a fulfillment of the future that their ancestors promised.
So, even though we KEEP TELLING THEM that the literacy program’s ONLY FUNCTION is to teach them how to read and write their own language so they can read the Scriptures that we are translating for them, they are still expecting more to come from it. Because they have linked the literacy program with the Bible teaching that will be following shortly behind, and they have linked the Bible teaching with material blessings here on earth, we still hear excited murmurs now and again about how they are “finally going inside of this new teaching,” and how, soon, they “won’t have to work so hard to live.”
Given, having one’s students convinced that their future health and happiness will be based on their academic aptitude makes for a very well-behaved class, but it’s still not an idea that we’re looking to reinforce. Please continue to pray for our Iski friends as they move towards becoming literate in their own language. The more of our people that can read when we begin teaching, the more of them there will be that can help illiterate members of the community review the lessons and understand the message!
Also, please be praying for Aurelie and Nisae, our two awesome lady co-workers, who are in charge of this first round of teaching. They’re naturals, and are doing an amazing job, but it’s still a lot of work!
*Fourteen out of the eighteen students are adults, so the rules are a little different from what you might find at your local middle-school. 😉
**Iski cultural beliefs have intercourse, even within marriage, as being one of the most grievous of sins, and many of their ancestral stories list this act as being the root cause of many of life’s hardships.