Mediating Peace in Village Conflicts through Stories

People often ask us what it is like to live in a Kwakum village. We usually respond by describing the day-to-day lives of our neighbors as sustenance farmers. We talk about their houses, methods of agriculture, the long walk to the field. We talk about their large families, most women giving birth to 8, 9, 10, or even more children throughout their lives. We talk about how the Kwakum people are a primarily oral people group, most (at least in the village) do not know how to read in any language.

Sometimes we try to communicate some of the harder truths village life: drunkenness, violence, and witchcraft. If you were to visit our village for a few days, or even weeks, you might not really know that any of that is going on. But if you were to live here, and study the language, you would eventually come to understand that Kwakum villages are filled with strife.

Over the years, you would see villagers screaming in one another’s faces, people humiliating one another, and on occasion, witness a murder. You would find that rather than being repulsed by the fighting, Kwakum people often sprint out of their mud-brick homes to go watch the fights. You would find that as onlookers grow more numerous, fights grow more animated as participants become determined to save face in front of the crowd.

When we see the violence and the strife, we know that God wants more for the Kwakum people. We know that they were not made to deal with conflict in this fashion. And, of course (we are Bible translators) we know that the Bible is the answer. However, as we have started to translate the Bible we have found that the Kwakum do not understand the value of the Bible in their day-to-day lives. So, we are faced with the question: how can we help the Kwakum understand that there is a better way? How can we help them see the value of God’s Word and God’s counsel.

Stories Help People Understand

As I mentioned, the Kwakum are primarily an oral society. Few can read, and yet the Kwakum love stories. Pretty much at any time we ask an older Kwakum person to tell one of their folktales and they will gladly oblige. They have all sorts of animal tales, in many tales the tortoise is the crafty trouble-maker. Most of these stories have some sort of moral, though often the moral tends to differ wildly from biblical wisdom. For instance, a large number of these folktales have for their moral: “don’t let someone fool you.” The following summary of a Kwakum folktale will help you see what I mean.

During a season of famine, the tortoise convinces his friend the panther that they ought to kill their own mothers for meat. The tortoise has an obscure plan that involves him killing his mother upstream. When the panther sees the blood from this murder, he will then kill his own mother. Then the two friends will meet up to cook their food and eat together. When the time comes, the tortoise travels upstream, gathering a red fruit which he then crushes. He pours the juice into the river which convinces the panther to kill his mother. While the panther puts his mother’s meat into a leafy-cooking-packet, the tortoise gathers together mushrooms in his own packet.

When they meet up and begin to roast their dinner, the panther keeps turning over his packet in the fire. The tortoise warns, “If you turn over that packet too much, your meat is going to become mushrooms!” Because that is stupid, the panther ignores the advice. However, when he steps away for a moment, the crafty tortoise switches their packets in the fire. At the end of the story, the panther ends up eating only mushrooms as the tortoise quietly rebukes him, “I told you so.”

Who is the hero of this story? What is the moral? When you get to the end of this folktale, the Kwakum people will roar in laughter, mocking the panther. “What a fool! He killed his own mother and ended up with nothing but mushrooms!” NOTE: the moral is not: “Don’t kill your mother,” nor, “Don’t trick people into killing their own mother.” No, for the Kwakum, the moral of the story: “Don’t be stupid, like the panther.” Not a great moral, not super helpful.

So, how do you fight bad stories that teach bad morals? The answer, at least in part: good stories that teach good morals. The best stories that teach the best morals are, of course, Bible stories. We have already started translating and teaching Bible stories, and we will continue. However, one of the hardest things about translating and teaching the Bible is that the Bible comes from a very different culture at a very different time.

Sometimes, real-life stories, folktales and fables help us understand the message of the Bible better, especially when they are written within our own culture and life-situation. We already know this. This is why sermons are filled with illustrations. This is why Pilgrim’s Progress is regarded as “one of the most significant works of theological fiction in English literature.” What an amazing statement! It’s a story! But it has been hugely impactful because stories help us understand.

Biblical Counseling with Stories

If you have followed our ministry, you know that Stacey is in the midst of a Doctor of Ministry program in Biblical Counseling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. For that program, she was asked to write a Bible-based mediation strategy for the Kwakum people. Part of the strategy she developed involved writing a story about two Kwakum brothers that were experiencing conflict. The story follows the brothers as they fought over the kinds of issues brothers fight over in our village. However, unlike in our village, the older brother turns to a pastor for help, and seeks to resolve the conflict in a godly way.

I sat down with my translation team two weeks ago and we worked through the first rough draft of Exodus 19-20. When we had finished our work, we started translating the first section of the story that Stacey wrote to help the Kwakum with conflict: The War of the Two Brothers. In this first portion of the story, the older of two brothers comes home to find that his younger brother’s girlfriend has moved into the family house. He feels a deep shame that his younger brother has reached a level of maturity he has not and it drives him to anger and violence. As we translated my translators had a lot of fun thinking about what the two brothers might say to one another in this situation. We laughed, giggled, and even whooped and hollered a bit.

I asked them at the end of the drafting session if this was a realistic village conflict. They all affirmed that this is a common village occurrence. One of them added, “Often times these kinds of conflicts lead to lifetime estrangement between two brothers. I don’t know how this kind of conflict could even be resolved.” This comment was at the same time disheartening, and encouraging. Disheartening because my translators are the Kwakum people that know the Bible the best, yet they cannot think of how to resolve a common village conflict. Encouraging because it was clear that this story was reaching them at their level and helping them think through real-life issues.

Our goal as Bible translators is not just to help the Kwakum translate the Bible. We are here to help them learn how to understand the Bible and apply it to their own lives, and the lives of those around them. Regarding the practical means, the use of stories and workshops is just part of the plan. I am excited to add a new tab to our blog called Biblical Counseling, where over time we will add resources that we are developing in our ministry. While these are mainly targeted at the Kwakum, they will likely hit at African culture more broadly and apply to many different issues facing missionaries and pastors in West Africa (not to mention those who have moved from West Africa into American/European churches). Check out the Biblical Counseling tab and feel free to read if only to better understand and pray for the ministry to the Kwakum people.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

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