Africa Alive Banner Stories 2

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“MY SOUL CLINGS TO THE DUST; GIVE ME LIFE ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD.” -PSALM 119:25

In this land, deep sands wash over hills and under trees, unavoidable by any living creature. In the middle of the vast desert landscape, our team joined small circles of San people; we listened as they shared stories, both ancient and new. As the first inhabitants of what is now known as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, the San traditionally are a peaceful people speaking nine “click” languages.

Rich in indigenous knowledge, the San have long survived on nuts, berries and small game. Unrestrained by boundaries, they moved up and down rivers and lived in small family groups. In the last two centuries, other tribes have moved in and overtaken their homeland, pushing the San to the outskirts of land areas and society. They’ve been told their way of life is archaic, or worse, lazy. As a result, the San have suffered a loss of culture and tradition as they’ve been forced to adapt to the modernity surrounding them.

Although San villages now resemble those of neighboring Bantu tribes, the quality of life of the San people is often much more difficult. Like many other societies that experience degradation and dependency on other groups in power, the San now are grappling with social problems, including alcoholism and a lack of education. Forced off lands by government forces, abandoned by some humanitarian groups, or pushed toward doctrines and beliefs that fail to communicate the Gospel in a meaningful context, the San have fought hard to maintain a sense of identity.

Eben Le Roux grew up among the San people of Botswana. He’s a modern missionary, ministering among the people he knows best. As a field coordinator, Eben is quick to dodge praise and just as quick to crack a joke. He often sits quietly for hours on an uncomfortable child-sized chair encouraging translators as they grapple for the right phrases to convey a Scripture passage in their language. His workload is heavy, yet he never complains. It’s not uncommon to see his curly blonde head streaking past as he sprints from sandy place to sandy place to complete the day, leaving enough time to spend with his three young daughters and wife, Phia.

Eben and Phia live on the family farm nestled on the Okavango Delta near the Botswana and Namibia border. At night, hippos grumble and munch on the grass in the family’s front lawn, and during the day a mix of Afrikaans and English chatter is heard throughout the house and yard. Although the family’s calling is not always easy, joy bursts from every corner of the farm.

The Le Roux’s are always first to share with their neighbors — Eben daily transports six or seven San people in his truck bed while Phia can effortlessly make a feast for 20 from a meal for five as she chats away about the weather and newest Disney release. This is the life most people should envy — filled to the brim, always surprising and constantly satisfying. 

Eben believes in cultural preservation balanced with an eternal perspective. He says, “When we don’t have our land anymore, when we don’t have our resources anymore, our cultural identity anymore — we can have another identity in Christ. That’s something eternal that cannot be taken away from us.” At the same time, he says, “Christianity has had a long history in this area, but it has always been brought to people from the outside. It’s important to first see how God is working in a local area rather than coming up with your own plan and strategy for working with people.”

“Christianity has had a long history in this area, but it has always been brought to people from the outside, he says. “It’s important to first see how God is working in a local area rather than coming up with your own plan and strategy for working with people.”

The art of storytelling has a powerful impact on the way the San people internalize and begin to live out the Bible. “If you really want to hear a story, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, let’s go listen to a tape machine,’” says Eben. “Instead, people say, ‘Please tell me that story,’ or ‘That reminds me of something else I heard.’ It communicates so much better if someone tells you a story in person.”

 

When a translation workshop begins among the San, tents pop up in a community space as neighboring villagers arrive. People huddle together around small fires in the morning, drinking chai and eating bread and peanut butter while the sun slowly rises.

During the heat of the day, everyone congregates under shade trees to work through a story’s translation. Sometimes the process goes quickly — other times, it may take a few hours to translate one or two words from Setswana or Afrikaans into the word that will make the most sense in a Sans language, and in this case, the heart language known as Khwedam.

 

The Beautiful Complexity of Language

Setswana is the national language of Botswana, Afrikaans is a daughter language of Dutch, and Khwedam is one of the nine languages spoken by the San.

Some narrators (Bible storytellers) can read two languages and own a Bible; others have only listened to the stories on an audio device and may not be able to read or write, but are master storytellers. Despite their individual level of experience, the workshop setting allows the entire community to develop stories accurately.

As narrators tell stories, community members listen intently. Then the feedback begins. Some may suggest a different word here or there. Others may ask to know more about the characters in the story. Many think deeply about what they’ve heard, internalizing the wisdom and truths of God’s Word, and reaching out to know Him more.

As a group, they check facts for each story and equip every individual with the confidence and skills needed to share with the broader community. Once the group decides on a final translation, a back translation is done into English in order for a consultant with theological and linguistic training to provide an analysis. Demonstrating their dedication, the narrators return to the workshops every three months to fine-tune their translations. “Each part of this process is linked together and important to the overall accuracy of the Khwe translation,” says Eben.

“The goal of the workshops is to cause a chain reaction,” says Eben. “The people who attend take the stories they learn back to their communities and share them, engaging others.”


It’s hard to imagine anyone loving a good story more than the San. Storytelling is a rich tradition as old as their culture. And coupling Bible translation with the art of storytelling is resulting in a contagious life-changing love for God, His Word and each other.

Photos by Esther Havens

Written by Kelsi Williamson