The Baruga people normally do not enjoy reading; books are a foreign means of getting information or enjoyment, even for those who are bright and well-educated. As members of an oral culture, the Baruga traditionally passed on stories around the fire at night, retelling them until the hearers knew them as perfectly as the storytellers did. They learn new information by talking to each other or observing, never by researching or reading. Thus, storytelling, audio recordings, music, drama, video and other visuals are necessary to help the Baruga people remember, apply, and recognise the truth of the Scriptures.
While working with the Baruga women on literacy last year, Joan Farr (SIL) decided to focus on their comprehension skills. A literacy teacher would read a story about a familiar topic, written by a Baruga team member, and then ask some simple comprehension questions. The first time they tried it, Ana, one of the teachers, read a rather funny story. Though Ana read the story fluently and expressively, the ladies listening seemed puzzled and sat stone-faced – they didn’t laugh, identify with the story, or even respond. So Ana read the story again. There was a long pause. Suddenly Eileen, one of the older ladies sitting in the back, burst out with a summary of the story – and faces all over the room lit up; everyone was laughing and making comments. What had happened??
When the story was read from the printed page, with no eye contact, there was no response; but when it was told by a storyteller, it suddenly became “real”– a story which demanded a response. Storytelling is more than just reading from a book: it is an entire process including facial expressions, eye contact and social interaction.
With a new understanding of oral cultures, Joan Farr and her husband Jim are considering how they can best include orality in the final stages of the Baruga New Testament translation project.