by Del Chinchen
In oral societies, the community will either work with you or against you depending on the extent to which you have worked your way into the networking system.
The story is told of two single missionary women who served among the Kambu in Kenya. The local people, very curious about these two visitors, observed that each morning the two would sit out on their veranda and drink juice. The longer the two missionaries were there the more discouraged they became because they had not made one convert. Finally, after about a year, the two packed up and went home, convinced that this unreceptive community was resistant to the gospel. The married couple that was sent to replace them soon discovered why the two single missionaries had failed. Women, in that culture, drink juice in the morning after they have had a sexual relationship. The women in the community, thinking the two single missionaries were having affairs with their husbands, spread the word quickly and collectively agreed not to associate with such people!
The oral networking system can either make or break your ministry. Missionaries from individualistic societies are not accustomed to or skilled in using the "talking drums." Oblivious to the networking system and unappreciative of its value, missionaries may blame their failures on the hard hearts of the people or the work of Satan. On the other hand, a missionary who plies the networking system (as one would surf the Internet) finds a whole new world out there filled with ministry opportunities.
Networking is not limited to computers alone. The people network is used in collective cultures. Because of the aggregate nature of people in collective societies, oral communication becomes an art skillfully developed over time. People skills, through games and other socialization processes, are honed at a very early age. People, not TV, are the ones watched. People, more than books, are read and analyzed. People, not video games, become the source of entertainment. People, rather than computers, contain the subtle data that helps one understand the way the world works. "As Westerners admire technical intelligence, Africans take pride in social intelligence" (Fadiman, 1994, 19).
Why is networking stressed more in some cultures than in others? In developed societies, with strong formal institutions, a high level of trust is placed in those institutions (i.e., banks, schools, hospitals, etc.). Networking through personal relationships in order to obtain goods and/or services is not necessary. One does not need to have a personal relationship with the bank manager in order to receive overdraft protection. Telephones, answering machines, computers, e-mail, Internet, bulletins, posters and signs are all efficient, yet impersonal, methods of communication.
However, if the institutionalized structure in a society is weak or nonexistent, a more personal, oral networking system is necessary for security, a regular supply of cash, or community support for a ministry project. Credibility of the message is based on trust in the messenger in an ambiguous environment where stories of all kinds can fly. A high incidence of crime, war or rumors of war only fans the flame for the need of a strong, dependable networking system for security purposes. The message carries more weight when the messenger is known, heard and seen. How else does one explain the complete absence of answering machines in the modern city of Nairobi? The words of a familiar and trusted informant, especially if spoken in person and from personal experience, contain moral fiber and authenticity for the oralist. A spoken word is worth a thousand written words. Words on paper, unemotional and indifferent, carry very little weight and do not communicate a sense of gravity or urgency.
It may help to remember that the story of Christ was communicated orally for at least 20 years before it was recorded in the gospels. His reputation, the stories of miracles he performed and his acts of compassion spread throughout the Roman Empire with the help of a healthy oral network of communication.
WORK THE NETWORK
In oral societies, the community will either work with you or against you depending on the extent to which you have worked your way into the networking system. To be excluded from the network is to remain on the fringe of society. Those who live in a mission compound, sealed off from the rest of the community, are not in a position to enter into the benefits of the system. The local people will wonder what those missionaries, who value their privacy, are doing behind those walls. There is only one explanation in traditional African society, for isolating oneself from the community-that person is a zoe, a witch, out to do harm to the community. Such a person cannot be trusted, and you certainly would not want your children to play with the children of a witch!
Be known by those in the network. The missionary must be visible and available to be included in the network. My parents experienced this firsthand when they arrived at their first field assignment in the jungles of Africa. The local people had anticipated their coming by building a house for them according to local style and based on local values. The walls were made of thin woven strips of bamboo providing easy listening for the local people of the conversations that took place within. The windows were made of nylon screen with a wide ledge underneath. The locals, then, could stand on the ledge and peer in without any difficulty. Living in a collective society was like living in a fish bowl and the architecture conformed to that ideal. Additionally, foreign missionaries there were a strange species and required even more scrutiny than normal in order to figure out.
Know those who are in the network. It is very important to have the right people in the network. Be sure those in your network are trustworthy individuals who are not going to use information against you. The Liberians say, "The tortoise is friends with the snail. Those with shells keep their shells close together." There could be those within the system who are secretly undermining your ministry without your knowledge.
Rumors were spreading like wildfire that a Liberian pastor, who we knew very well and greatly admired, was involved in an extramarital affair. The elders of the church, who were convinced that there was no truth to the rumor, called a congregational meeting to get to the bottom of it. It was finally discovered that one of the assistant pastors of the church, who had a personal vendetta against the pastor, had been maliciously spreading the lies. Rumors can fly in this type of environment but so can the Good News! "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see (and also talk about) your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
It is also possible that your network is incomplete. A missionary within our community boasted of having a direct link to the president of the country. During the heat of the war, this missionary brought machetes into the community for a farming project. However he was accused of selling "silent weapons." Even though he had contacts at the top, his lack of local contacts within the community left him vulnerable to false accusations.
Someone who has their "ears to the ground" makes an excellent informant. A Nigerian proverb says, "You must have someone hear the birds sing to bring music to you." When I was director of a Christian University in Liberia I was looked upon as a community leader. With that position came the responsibility to share the joys and sorrows of others in the community. I asked a well-connected Liberian faculty member to inform me of those he thought I should visit-the sick, the bereaved, the hospitalized, those with a new baby, etc. By following his prompting, ministry took on a much broader dimension. I had access into homes and families I would otherwise never have had.
Maintain the network. The network is established and maintained through periodic visits, phone calls or token gifts. A Nigerian proverb states, "Relationships cannot be maintained by what we ate last year." Relationships within the network must be kept alive through personal contact or those relationships, and the networking influence, will die.
ADVANTAGES OF NETWORKING
There are many advantages of being within the network but there are many more difficulties for the one who is not.
Community cooperation. When we first entered a new community in Liberia to establish a Christian university we were perceived to be strangers. Our lack of understanding of the networking system and the social etiquette required, at the early stages of our missionary career, only intensified the local people’s propensity to fear and distrust us. Before we had even begun digging foundations for the campus we found ourselves in hot water wherever we turned: we were taken to court because our dog had bitten someone, immigration claimed we were in the country illegally, the labor union accused us of breaking labor laws and the police attempted to impound our vehicle because it didn’t have a rearview mirror. We had not worked our way into the networking system and were being treated like outsiders as a result. The community boxed us in on all sides, restricting and hindering us, making tasks difficult, limiting our ministry effectiveness, and expressing overt hostility towards us at times.
However, when enough rapport and respect was established with the community, through the use of the network, ministry opportunities begin to open up.
Community protection of property. A certain General Rambo had become a menace in our Liberian community in the midst of a ceasefire. Though he was the commander in our area during military rule, he was notorious as the leader of looters: stealing cars, emptying houses, extorting money from foreigners, and so on. When the UN General arrived by helicopter in our area to discuss peace, Rambo refused to attend the meeting because he had not been informed of the UN General’s plans. Rambo ordered his soldiers to impound the helicopter and then left town in a huff. The helicopter and the UN General were held hostage until a local Liberian medical doctor and leader in the community convinced the soldiers, in the absence of Rambo, to let the helicopter go for the sake of peace. After the helicopter and the UN General had safely flown away Rambo returned to town with a vengeance! The medical doctor was stripped naked in the city square and beaten severely.
I was then approached by the community, as head of the Christian university and a leader of the community, to try to do something about this terrible injustice. Though missionaries are told to remain neutral in political affairs, my conscience would not allow me to ignore this flagrant violation of human rights. I asked my wife to spread word among faculty and students of my intention to confront Rambo and then quickly began the one-mile walk to military headquarters with an accompanying student. The network of people in the community that I had so carefully nurtured over the years began to leave their houses and follow me down the road. By the time I reached headquarters about twenty-five people formed an entourage behind me. Within an hour nearly a thousand people had surrounded the military compound. They supported me as their spokesman and with their encouraging presence communicated indirectly to Rambo: "You play with ‘The Man,’ you play with us." He got the message. Within a matter of three hours the doctor was released and rushed to the hospital for treatment.
Reputation. In an oral society, the best public relations for a ministry project comes by word of mouth. Those who have experienced the transforming effects of the ministry are mobile billboards for all to see and hear. Graduates from our Christian university not only advertised the institution with enthusiasm but recruited as well. The alumni became valuable components to the Christian university’s public relations department by informally soliciting and screening potential candidates for us.
Effective ministry. The oral network is useful for rebuking a Christian, when appropriate, simply by its silence. If a believer within your network needs a rebuke sometimes it is proper to "cut speech," as they say in Liberia. Silence speaks in an oral culture. In fact, silence speaks louder than words in cultures that Edward Hall describes as high context. Because collectivists have been trained to know how to listen to the network, when it becomes silent, the meaning is loud and clear. When the networking system breaks down it means a lack of harmony exists somewhere. Missionaries who are accustomed to a lack of ambiguity and direct verbal confrontation will want to develop a different communication approach in oral societies.
Sometimes, however, due to our ignorance of the impact that silence has in the oral system, we fail to realize the effects. When I failed to write regularly to a Liberian refugee friend, he rebuked me in a letter for forgetting him and not caring about him. Silence carries a powerful message.
You will never really know how far and wide your name and reputation, and with it the name of Christ, travels in a healthy oral society. An action or word of yours that you may dismiss as unimportant or trivial may be a stumbling block that prevents one from entering the kingdom of God. Alternately, it could be the door that leads the way to finding Christ.
We now live in an area that, during colonial days, was referred to as the "White Highlands" of Kenya. It is an area where Kenyan tea is grown. Those who lived in this town of Tigoni called themselves the "Tigoni Tigers" because of their blatant racist attitude to the point of refusing to attend a church where Kenyans worshiped. Even after independence some of these same type of people still remain.
Obviously we have a reputation to live down. We have made it a point to be friendly to all those who cross our path. Word seems to have spread fast. When one of the tea workers had a miscarriage and could not stop the bleeding she sat down, at the entrance of the road to our house (not someone else’s), very close to death from loss of blood. We rushed her to the hospital in time to save her and now she is a walking miracle for all to see and hear when she tells the story of what God has done in her life.
Have you ever thought about using the "talking drums" to communicate the love of God? Our actions, even those we might think insignificant, speak louder than words in an oral society and echo from one person to another. One act of kindness in an oral culture can resonate to many more and with much more clarity and influence than a thousand sermons. "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).
What are the "talking drums" saying about you? If you don’t know, it’s not too late to find out. As a representative of your church and the Church of Jesus Christ, what the "talking drums" say about you reverberates further than you think and affects many more than you will ever realize.
Fadiman, Jeffrey. 1994. "Your Son is My Son"—Black African Management Principles; An Overseas Marketers Guide. Paper presented at the EMU Conference on Language and Communication for World Business and the Professions, Ypsilanti, Michigan, pp. 1-39.
Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for 22 years. He is chairman of the Bible Department at Daystar Univeristy in Nairobi, Kenya.
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