I recently attended the West Africa Orality Consultation here in Jos. Almost everyone I have talked to since then about this conference has asked the same question, namely, “what does 'orality' mean?” I must admit I was not entirely sure myself until I attended this conference.
Orality is an important concept for missionaries to grasp. If we categorise cultures into those that are primarily literate and those that are primarily oral, orality refers to the way that oral cultures and oral learners receive, process, remember and pass on important information. It may help to think about story telling, because this is one good example of how oral learners receive, understand and pass on information. There are many other ways of course, such as songs, proverbs, poetry, riddles and drama.
The reality is that 60% of the world's population is either illiterate or functionally illiterate, while another 20% are semi-literate and prefer oral to literate communication. According to projections, this proportion (70-80%) who are primarily oral learners will increase rather than decrease as time passes. Therefore we will be missing the mark with most people if our strategies for communicating the Gospel (or anything else for that matter) are based on literate culture principles, such as books, reading, analytical and conceptual thinking, 3 point sermons, Bible study etc.
Since it typically takes about 120 years for a society to move from zero to 30% literacy, the solution is not to wait for people to become more literate, although literacy teaching is still very worthwhile. Communication with these people today needs a different approach based on orality. One example would be for each people group to have access to an oral story Bible consisting of 50-60 key scriptural stories in their own language.
When I first became interested in community health in the early 1980's, it became clear that many health workers, both missionaries and Nigerians, had already realised that health teaching was most effectively done by story telling. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN/CBM) health work in Garkida area of northeast Nigeria had already developed their concept of health teaching by story telling. Dr. David Hilton pioneered this approach in the 1970's forming the basis of the booklet “Kiwon Lafiya” (“Health”) which has been widely used since.
Applying this same principle beyond health teaching to include the communication of the gospel is where orality comes in. Although many have used these principles for long (Mark 4:34 “He did not say anything to them without using a parable”), orality as a term and as a discipline within missions has developed only recently. The International Orality Network was only formed after the 2004 Lausanne Consultation. At the conference last week there was some discussion about the possibility of forming a Nigerian Orality Network and perhaps holding further conferences.
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