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First Person: Caution: Culture Crossing


Tata Koti, chair of the Bethany Bible School Committee.

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study center
Our humble study centre in Mt. Ayliff.

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Yvonne Snider-Nighswander learns to drum during a break in the seminar.

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November 28, 2008
- by Dan Nighswander

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. — During our supper together, Tata Koti advised that we should leave for Mt. Ayliff at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. That meant setting the alarm for 4:45 so we could rise and prepare tea for Tata and his wife Mama Bewana by 5:30.

We departed at 6:10 and promptly at 8:00 arrived at our destination, a church in this rural area of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. In limited English, Tata Koti, chair of the Bethany Bible School Committee, indicated that we should be ready to start at 8:00… or 9:00. Two people were waiting when we arrived.

We don’t speak Xhosa and wondered who our translator would be. We had names of a few backups if the usual translator didn’t “pitch up,” as they say here. She didn’t. But we left the arrangements to Tata Koti, who made some phone calls but said nothing to us. We began to wonder whether there would be enough participants to hold a seminar and whether there would be any translation. I began to think how much I could present using only the Xhosa language handouts and my copy with parallel lines in English. Eventually Mama Bewana started accepting payment and issuing receipts for registration, so we assumed there would be a seminar.

Our gathering place was a simple building about six metres by ten metres, constructed of home-made bricks covered with plaster,. The corrugated metal roof proved leaky in the day-long rain. The floor, made of cow dung, had been re-built many times. Small windows on either side of the door provided the only daylight. One bare energy-efficient bulb in the centre supplemented the window light. The front wall was decorated with three colourful banners. Our study quarters were furnished with two tables at the front, covered with white plastic tablecloths, six plastic chairs for us who sat behind the table, and six benches, four of them brand new. There were also two drums, one of which was played by one of the women whenever we sang.

After the fifth and sixth students arrived at 9:10, Tata Koti indicated that I should start. I stood up and cleared my throat, still not knowing whether there would be a translator. Just then one of the last arrivals, Umfundisi (Pastor) David Sobutongo, joined me at the front and started speaking in English! I had a very brief sense of what Abraham felt like when God provided a ram in the thicket that saved his son Isaac from the sacrifice.

Later I learned that, although Umfundisi Sobutongo’s mother-tongue is Sotho, he also speaks Xhosa, Zulu, Pondo,Venda, English and Afrikaans. He was, as far as I could tell, a very gifted translator who repeated my gestures and tones as he interpreted my words to the class and theirs to me.

My assignment was to teach the life and letters of Paul. With help from a summary of all of Paul’s letters in Xhosa, I pointed out a few highlights, divided the group into two for discussion, and used their responses to provide more background and application for their context.

Tata Koti had asked that I wrap up by 12:00 or 12:15. Taking my cue from how others keep time here, I managed to stop at 12:30. Almost immediately the women from the neigbouring house brought water to wash our hands, followed by plates of food: a large and meaty chicken leg, rice, samp (maize) and beans, cooked cabbage and roasted potato. The hostess placed a mug before us and indicated that we should share. Yvonne tasted it first and immediately realized that it wasn’t water, but broth from the chicken that we deduced was intended to be shared not just between us but with everyone present. It was an awkward moment, another example of our limitations in understanding the culture and language. Yvonne was mortified and did her best to control her reaction, but no harm was done, and the broth did improve the rice – for everybody. Glasses of juice were served later, after the meal, as usual, followed by coffee, ginger cookies and apples.

I spoke, as possible, with the three men present and Yvonne visited with the five women. She got a brief lesson on how to drum for the singing. Another woman approached and pressed a gift into Yvonne’s hand – a roll of Italian cookies that had somehow made it to this little village strung across a hilltop near Mount Ayliff.

The gathering ended as it had begun, with singing and prayers. Though the group was small, the singing was energetic and loud, driven by the rhythm of the drums, by clapping and dancing. The prayers were also loud; sometimes everyone prayed aloud simultaneously. With a spirit of joy we shook hands around the circle, embraced, and bid each other farewell, each in our own language.

The two-hour ride back to Mthatha was a quiet one. We were all tired. It had been a long day, and it was the third of four successive Saturdays teaching the same lesson in Mthatha, Cofimvaba, Mount Ayliff and Lusikisiki. In the process almost one hundred pastors and other church leaders in African Indigenous Churches have learned something new about reading Paul’s letters and have been affirmed and encouraged in their ministry.