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Simon & Sue French have been serving in Tanzania among the Datooga people for 13 years, sharing the gospel and equipping Datooga evangelists to reach out to their own communities. They share how Bible storying projects are reaching those who are unreached with the good news.
Sometimes it can seem as though the Datooga have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Some of the youth from the Eyasi area have completed schooling and are looking towards further education, whilst others are happy living their traditional lifestyle herding cows. But, initiatives like the Bible storying project aim to bridge those differences and help all Datooga people access God’s word in a way that they can understand.
Determined to know more
Choosing a life in church leadership has particular challenges for the Datooga.
It was with mixed emotions that we saw Marko*, our young Datooga friend who had been assisting with the storying project, set off for Mwanza, a city a day’s travel away, to attend Bible school. We were excited that he wanted to study the Scriptures more. However, was it also just an opportunity for him to improve on the limited primary school education he had got in the village? Would he cope in a city among a people group so different from his own? Could he survive a new daily diet of maize porridge and salty fish sauce when the Datooga traditionally don’t eat fish? How would he cope financially?
We met Marko again on vacation after his first term. He answered our questions enthusiastically as he helped organize the church Christmas celebrations. Salty fish? ‘Pretty grim but I can manage’. Meeting new people groups? ‘Challenging but exciting’, finances ‘not easy but a number of believers have helped and I am getting by’. Returning for the next term? ‘Definitely’.
Praise the Lord.
So why is there a need for a Bible storying project in the Lake Eyasi area where some fledgling churches have already been planted? The answer is that the storying project is designed to support the work of the local churches and to help them in their efforts to reach the many Datooga who may be resistant to more conventional evangelistic methods.
Until recently the Datooga language was purely oral, and even now only the New Testament is available in written form. Many Datooga in the Lake Eyasi area know some Swahili but most are more comfortable using their heart language. While the churches make an effort to accommodate the needs of new Datooga believers the reality is that most churches tend to function mainly in Swahili, and they use the Bible in Swahili.
But storytelling is a key part of Datooga culture. Stories are used to pass on life skills and the consequences of good and bad behaviour. By crafting the Bible’s salvation story into brief chronological, repeatable stories, the storying project enables the Datooga to discover biblical truths in a style which is familiar to them.
Christian Datooga people have also shown an interest in the stories. A Datooga evangelist, helping translate some of the stories said that the work was ‘like being at Bible school’. Another Datooga lady who has been coming to church for years and is helping to check the translated stories for linguistic accuracy said hearing the stories has helped her to see how the Bible fits together. It seems that a tool originally designed for non-believers can also have a role in helping existing Datooga believers strengthen their faith and understanding of Scripture.
Growing up in a ‘book learning’ based culture, we have realised just how easy it is to underestimate the ability stories have to preserve and convey information. Our prayer is that the project’s stories will help ensure that portions of God’s word are accessible to any Datooga in the Eyasi area who are able to hear them.