by Jay Moon
Three reasons that missionaries (both expatriates and nationals) in predominantly oral cultures should actively incorporate the use of traditional proverbs in their ministry.
African literary great Chinua Achebe wrote “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten” (1959, 7). As a new missionary living among the Builsa people in a rural village in Ghana, West Africa, my goal was to learn the language. I also wrestled with understanding a culture that was vastly different from the American suburban culture with which I was familiar. I often observed the Builsa people engaging in lively, entertaining and seemingly effective forms of communication. They were using traditional proverbs, which made the conversation “sweet,” meaning pleasant to listen to and easier to digest or understand. I wondered, “Could this be an effective vehicle for communicating the gospel in a way that was sweet to the listeners’ ears and also sweet to their hearts?” After ten years of exploring this question, I suggest three reasons that missionaries (both expatriates and nationals) in predominantly oral cultures should actively incorporate the use of traditional proverbs in their ministry: 1) proverbs open ears to hear the gospel; 2) proverbs clear away the fog in theological communication; 3) proverbs root the gospel in vernacular soil.
Anything that can help achieve these goals deserves our attention. This is sweet talk that we need to hear.
PROVERBS OPEN EARS TO HEAR THE GOSPEL
How many times have you tried to share the gospel message with someone but it appeared that their ears were not open to hear it? Proverbs help to open those ears. When 108 Builsa were asked why they speak in proverbs, more than one quarter responded, “This is the type of speech we like. It brings laughter and enjoyment into the conversation” (Moon 2000). Communication in Africa is an art form: how you speak is just as important as what you say. Ong observed, “Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic value and human worth” (1982, 14). This artistic value can easily be overlooked by missionaries. A Nigerian pastor once told me, “If one does not speak in proverbs, he will not carry people with him for long. They will walk for only a short way and then leave him. If he speaks in proverbs, however, the people will not be able to close their ears!” The use of proverbs can open ears that may otherwise be closed, thereby allowing the gospel to become appreciated and enjoyed as a beautiful artistic expression from God.
I participated in a meeting in Ghana where proverbs were being discussed and a government official was present. A Builsa pastor told the proverb, “Ba kan gering wusum kpalinsa ale kingkanga” (They cannot separate the fighting of horses with millet stalks). The government official had never heard that proverb before and he sat there trying to understand it. He was smiling while enjoying the metaphor and the challenge of discovering its meaning. Finally, the pastor explained how a fight between two horses is a serious matter that cannot be solved by using weak things like millet stalks (similar to long corn stalks). We must not rely on weak means to solve difficult or weighty issues. The government official smiled and enjoyed the whole process tremendously. Everyone could tell that the communication was sweet to him.
Then, the pastor went on to explain that this reminds him of how we tend to be in a fight with God because of our bad deeds and thoughts. We try to resolve the fight by using animal sacrifices or good works, but God’s word says that all of our works will one day be tested in the fire. All of the things we do will be like millet stalks that will be burned (incidentally, millet stalks are commonly used to start fires since they ignite easily). That is why God sent his Son from heaven to separate the fighting between humankind and God. He is the only one who can solve a weighty issue like this.
At this point, the government official started to ponder deeply the meaning of what was being said. People had witnessed to him before, but this time the communication went deep into his heart. The proverb had plowed the ground of his heart so that the seed of the word could find readily-prepared soil. He understood the gospel that day in a way that he never had before. It reached both his head and his heart.
This type of communication can be a powerful tool for the indigenous understanding of the gospel since it involves both cognitive and emotive elements. It could also plow fresh ground in Muslim areas where ears are closed to the gospel but wide open to proverbs.
PROVERBS CLEAR AWAY THE FOG IN THEOLOGICAL COMMUNICATION
Have you ever stood before an audience and observed a person’s eyes glaze as if his or her mind has fogged over just as you reached what you thought was the climax of a crucial theological truth? Proverbs are often useful for clearing away the fog since they make communication clear and concise. A short proverb can speak volumes by using metaphors and values with which the people readily identify.
When the Builsa were asked why they use proverbs, almost one third responded that proverbs were useful to clarify a situation or a conversation, or to give quick meaning (Moon 2000). When asked “What would someone sound like if they did not use proverbs?” their most common responses were that people would not understand well, the communication would not be sweet, or people would not listen to them. It would sound odd, childish, untrue or irrelevant. According to one man, a person who does not use proverbs in serious conversation “is speaking in the rain.” If you have ever tried to listen to someone while raindrops, like the steady clashing of a cymbal, resounded from a metal roof, then you will understand this African’s frustration at listening to a lengthy speaker who didn’t use proverbs. A Yoruba proverb states, “Proverbs are the horses of speech; if communication is lost, we use proverbs to find it” (Lindfors 1973).
A short-term missionary was visiting the Builsa area and I served as his translator. He was introducing a new agricultural technique that the people seemed to like. He eventually tried to explain that the equipment would be sold to them (at a subsidized price) since he found that people who invested their own money in something tended to value the item more, use and maintain it. The audience did not understand the concept that he was trying to convey despite several attempts to do so. Finally, I told them the proverb, “Fi dan pisi wiik gauta po, ku le be gauta po” (If you find a whistle while dancing, then it will get lost again while dancing). Immediately, the audience erupted in laughter and the people understood the missionary’s meaning since the proverb’s meaning was clear—if you just find (or are given) something without any effort on your part, you will not take care of it and it will easily get lost. No more needed to be said to the group. In just a few words, the fog lifted and the meaning was clearly and concisely communicated.
Proverbs can also serve as effective vehicles to clarify theological truths. Since no one typically doubts the validity of a proverb, the truths they contain can often be helpful in conveying biblical truths in a manner the people can understand and value as their own. In this light, proverbs can be seen as a gold mine that God has placed in the culture. Believers need to discover them, extract the gold contained therein, and use them in a manner that glorifies God.
After I used some proverbs to clarify a biblical teaching, a Builsa responded, “I know that God’s word is not just words from the white man but is God’s word for the Builsa since our own proverbs confirm it.” Once the proverbs were tapped, the gospel was clarified for this man so that it became God’s good news for Africans—a treasure deep within African soil.
PROVERBS ROOT THE GOSPEL IN VERNACULAR SOIL
Since proverbs are often deeply treasured in oral cultures, they can also be valuable resources to help express theology that is deeply rooted in the local soil. I used to think that I simply needed to learn theology in the US and then go and deliver it in Africa. Unfortunately, this attitude contributes to the gospel being seen as a “foreign gospel.” An African proverb states, “Borrowed pants, when they are not loose at the ankle, are tight at the thigh” (Adeeko 1998, 1-27). Whenever Christianity does not root itself into the local cultural context, it is always a “borrowed religion” that never quite fits correctly. This borrowed faith may appear to fit for certain areas of life, but during times of crisis or stress one can see that the “pants are not loose at the ankle and are too tight at the thigh.” This has led to the “persistence of a two-tier Christianity around the world despite centuries of instruction and condemnation by missionaries and church leaders” (Hiebert, Shaw and Tienou 1999, 15), and has inhibited the growth of an indigenous form of Christianity. Instead, the gospel is often seen as either irrelevant to the culture or as a foreign religion. Either way, the borrowed pants do not fit!
Since proverbs are rooted in the African daily experience and way of life, they can be powerful tools for encouraging the critical reflection needed to express African Christian theology. This is more than merely adorning or “dressing Western theology in African clothing.” Proverbs can illuminate as they stimulate deeper reflection on the gospel in an African context.
An African proverbs discussion group was formed at Asbury Theological Seminary to discuss proverbs and their interaction with the gospel. During one meeting, a pastor from Kenya led a discussion of a Meru proverb: “When a man is in love, he doesn’t count how long and steep the road is to his fiancée’s house.” He told how he walked a long and dangerous path to visit his fiancée’s home, but didn’t even consider the option to stay home since his love compelled him. As he shared, the entire group started to picture the scenario back in their own context in Africa, and we entered into a very lively discussion. Some affirmed that an African often displays love through actions instead of words. The tangible expression is more meaningful than words that can easily be spoken but not sincerely felt. As the group analyzed the proverb and its cultural meaning, theologizing resulted as they reflected on God’s love expressed in an African manner. Just as an African often shows love through actions and not words alone, God also showed his love through his actions. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The group returned to the imagery of the initial proverb, “When a man is in love, he doesn’t count how long and steep the road is to his fiancée’s home.” It was noted that God was in love with his fiancée, the church. Because of this intense love for his bride-to-be, he did not count how long or steep the road was from heaven to earth. Rather, he displayed his love by coming to earth in the form of Jesus to visit his fiancée’s home. Even suffering, rejection and death would not prevent him from coming to earth.
That day I began to understand God’s intimate and compelling love in a way that I had never considered before. The other group participants mentioned the same thing, even the one who initially offered the proverb for discussion. He was so excited about this theological understanding that he said he could not wait to return to Africa for an evangelistic ministry in summer. The use of proverbs helped him to express the gospel in a way that was African and Christian. This would surely be sweet talk in the Meru culture. It also became sweet talk to me.
MY PERSONAL JOURNEY
As I began to learn the Builsa proverbs, not only did my language learning improve (and become more enjoyable), but also the strange culture in which I was living gradually became less strange. I noticed recurring themes that emerged from the proverbs and these values helped me to make sense of the culture I was struggling to understand (Moon 2002). Gradually I was learning that the proverbs were an open window into the Builsa’s deep cultural values. The more I understood these, the better I was able to understand and communicate in this culture.
I also noticed how the Builsa began to appreciate my interest in their proverbs. They were very proud of their proverbs since they were fully Builsa and were the “deep talk” that the elders prized. I observed how the Builsa appreciated proverbs when speaking among themselves, but they appeared to enjoy it doubly when the outsider was speaking proverbs to them. It seemed that the sweet talk had become extra sweet. My interest in their proverbs communicated to them that I respected and valued their cultural heritage. Nussbaum (2002) stated, “Showing courtesy and respect is one of the clearest demonstrations of love that a missionary can give.”
I found that the Builsa responded very warmly when I demonstrated my love in this way.
When I was teaching a class on church planting at a Bible training center in northern Ghana, I often asked the class to summarize the stage of church planting that we were discussing by using one of their proverbs. This reversed the flow of communication and power since I (the teacher) was now the struggling learner. I was amazed at the response.
The students began to see that theology dealt with issues of their own culture, and it could be expressed in terms and concepts that were highly valued in their culture. As they began to explain the proverbs to me, I was again humbled to learn from them. The excitement in the class-room increased as we all enjoyed the proverbs and their applications.
When discussing the need for small groups, some proverbs given were: “If you put plenty [too much] in the mouth, you can’t chew it all,” and “A small fire burns all of the bush [unprepared field].” One student related the importance of public commitment (baptism, etc.) to the proverb: “If you have your new clothing and do not wear it [out in the open for others to see], then no one will know that you have it.” As I listened to these proverbs and their explanations, I observed how they were expressing God’s truths in an artistic manner that clearly and concisely communicated deeply within their own soil. In the process, I gradually felt my own ears open, and my relationship with the students deepened.
For new missionaries and more experienced ones, the serious study and use of proverbs in ministry can open ears to the gospel and then clear away the fog in theological communication. Proverbs can also help encourage the development of theology that is both indigenous and Christian so that the gospel is not worn as a set of borrowed trousers; rather, it is a set of trousers that are tailored to fit the individual context. The time has come to uncover and study these proverbs in order to engage them in ministry and theology in oral societies. As we do so, this sweet talk can be used for the purpose which God intended—to communicate the gospel to his people.
Several years after the initial experience of language learning, I was teaching a session at church. I used a few proverbs to help communicate points I was trying to make. Afterwards, a Builsa came to me and said, “When you used those proverbs, it was like you were singing a song that I wanted to hear. You can sing that song all day long and I will listen.” That is sweet talk!
Achebe, Chinua. 1959. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books.
Adeeko, Adeleke. 1998. Proverbs, Textuality, and Nativism in African Literature. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida.
Healey, Joseph and Donald Sybertz. 2000 . Towards an African Narrative Theology. Nairobi, Kenya: Pauline Publications Africa.
Hesselgrave, David J. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.
Hiebert, Paul G. , R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou. 1999. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Lindfors, Bernth. 1973. “Wole Soyinka and the Horses of Speech.” In Essays on African Literature, ed. by W. L. Ballard, 79-97. Atlanta, Ga.: Georgia State University.
Moon, W. Jay. 2000. Analyzing Builsa Proverbs and Culture in the Light of the Gospel. M.A. Capstone Project, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, Calif.
——. 2002. “Builsa Proverbs and the Gospel.” Missiology: An International Review 30:171-186.
Nussbaum, Stan. 1996-98. The Wisdom of African Proverbs CD-ROM. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Global Mapping International.
Ong, Walter J. 1982. Orality and Literacy. London, U.K.: Routledge.
RESOURCES FOR BEGINNING
How do you begin the process of using proverbs in ministry? The best advice is to “Just do it!” The following suggestions may help get you started.
1. Carefully observe and record proverbs in the vernacular when they are used in routine conversations. Once you are looking for them and people know that you are interested, the proverbs will readily surface. Hesselgrave notes, “What is significant is that thousands of proverbs and aphorisms form an indispensable part of daily communication throughout the cities and villages of Africa and other tribal areas” (Hessel-grave 1991, 327). Record the actual words used, context and possible interpretations in the vernacular before you proceed with translating back into English. Later ask others for the fuller meanings behind the proverb.
2. Search through any material printed in the vernacular. Traditional stories often contain proverbs at the end to conclude the story’s moral. I found that a dictionary in the vernacular and literacy materials were excellent sources for proverbs.
3. Ask your students, pastors and friends to tell you some proverbs and their local meanings. Once I expressed an interest, the people readily shared them with me. Then, gather a group of believers to use the vernacular Scripture to interpret the truth contained in the proverbs. What in the proverb does the vernacular Scripture affirm, modify or reject? Once we started doing this each month with Builsa pastors, it became a catalyst for theologizing in deeper cultural issues that were previously untouched. Some proverbs contain insults or prejudices that make for fruitful critical reflection, using the vernacular Scripture as the interpreter. Other proverbs contain cultural truths that the vernacular Scripture readily affirms. The process of analyzing proverbs in the light of the vernacular Scripture can stimulate a critical engagement of the gospel with the culture.
4. Visit. This site is maintained by Father Joseph Healey in Tanzania along with Kenyans Joseph Kariuki and Nicholas Adongo. Each day, a fresh African proverb is listed. A “proverb for the month” contains more extended explanations of the cultural background, scriptural application and ministry uses. The site is very user friendly, informative and up-to-date.
5. The Wisdom of African Proverbs CD-ROM, edited by Stan Nussbaum (1996-98) is another invaluable source of proverbs collections, seminar proceedings and other reflections on African proverbs. Over 27,000 proverbs from all across Africa are on this CD-ROM, making it a proverbs library. It also contains an excellent annotated bibliography for further reading. It can be purchased for a reasonable price ($49.95) from .
6. Start to use the few proverbs that you know in the appropriate context. Then invite feedback and discussion. Once they knew that I was serious about using proverbs correctly, the Builsa were free to correct my mistakes, as well as offer some of their own favorite proverbs and the applications to Scripture that they discovered. As I assumed the posture of a learner, practically everyone became my “teacher.” With the help of short-term missionary, Gerry Lynn, we wrote a computer database program to enter the proverbs with their meanings, contexts, themes and appropriate Bible references. I could then retrieve these each week by searching for a word, theme or Bible passage. This became a “concordance of proverbs” that I used each week to prepare for preaching, teaching, counseling, etc. This program can be obtained from Gerry Lynn at .
7. Network with others, as the Ghanaian proverb reminds us, “Wisdom is like a baobob tree, a single person’s hand cannot embrace it” (Healey and Sybertz 2000, 17). This can be done in various ways. For example:
a. E-mail proverbs-list@afriprov. org to join 170 others in the African Proverbs, Sayings, and Stories e-mail discussion group.
b. E-mail Stan Nussbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org concerning the Listen First guidelines and e-mail group discussion.
c. E-mail the author at w@moons. com to enter the Gospel and Culture e-mail discussion group at Asbury Theological Seminary. —Jay Moon
W. Jay Moon is an SIM missionary who has served in Ghana since 1992. He is currently a doctoral candidate in inter-cultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 162-169. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.