Fish are central to the Shilluk people’s way of life. They eat fish, sell fish and fall asleep thinking about fish! Fish is everything to them. A husband has a legal right to divorce his wife if she does not cook the head of the fish and serve it to him.
Literacy rates in South Sudan are very low – only 30% of men and 10% of women can read and write. The Shilluk people (also known as the Collo), who were badly affected by the civil war, are amongst the poorest and least educated in the country. That’s why the Bible Society in South Sudan, which published the very first Shilluk Bible in 2013, recently initiated a literacy programme based in the town of Kodok – the Shilluk capital.
Not met with great enthusiasm
But this was not met with great enthusiasm by Shilluk people, even when promoted by two Shilluk Christians: Professor Twong Yolong Kur, a committed Roman Catholic and Chairperson of the Collo Language Council, and Peter Majwok, an Elder of the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan.
Faced with disinterest and resistance, despite explaining the multiple benefits of literacy, Prof. Yolong was struck with inspiration: he decided to use Scripture itself as a method of persuasion – particularly Scripture that related to fish or fishing!
When he read out loud from Mark 1:17, “Come follow me… I will make you fishers of men”, and Matthew 14:16-21 about how 5,000 people were fed with two fish and five loaves, he noticed that people were sitting up and listening intently. Many then went on to attend the literacy classes.
Two fish with one hook
“I caught two fish with one hook!” said Prof. Yolong. “Some joined the literacy class and some of them became Christians and will be baptised.”
He adds that other Scripture stories about fish didn’t always go down quite so well with some of the Shilluk.
I read them the story of Jonah and how he was in the belly of the whale for three days. Many people refused to believe or accept this story. Prof. Yolong, Chairperson of the Collo Language Council
Lukwam Akyengero was one such person, who responded angrily, saying, “This is nonsense and I don’t want to hear any more stories like this.”
But another man, Yoane Ajak, was intrigued by the story. He joined the literacy classes to find out more and ended up becoming a Christian. He is now an assistant in the literacy school and, after a year of gentle persuasion, got Lukwam to join the literacy school, too. Through this, Lukwam became a Christian and, when baptised, took the name Abarayama (Abraham). He has brought other people of his age to church.
Yoane recently bought a copy of the Shilluk Bible, which he is reading regularly and finding hope in it. “This war is making us suffer but one day we will repent, draw closer to him and the war will be over,” he says.
Took a lot of courage
It took a lot of courage for housewife Ozoonwa Nyumbe to attend literacy classes, but she persisted and is proud to own a Bible and read it out loud at church.
When I started going to the literacy school many people just thought I was lazy, trying to avoid doing my work at home. But when they saw me doing the readings at church services the criticism turned to praise! Other women have also started attending classes now. Ozoonwa Nyumbe, literacy class student
One of the root causes of war
Many educated people in South Sudan believe that illiteracy is one of the root causes of the civil war, which erupted in 2013. During the war in Sudan, when the country was still one, education in the south was virtually non-existent, which helps explain the terribly low rates of literacy.
Increasing literacy in this country will give more people the chance to be educated and learn about forgiveness, and right from wrong. The church and government need to work hand in hand on this task. The Bible Society in South Sudan is preparing to hand over the literacy project to the churches and believe the churches offer the right platform to reach people and make a real difference. Prof. Yolong agrees: “The churches will take the literacy programme seriously.”
Please pray for peace in South Sudan, and for God to bless this literacy programme, which could change lives.
With thanks to Dr Edward Kajivora, Executive Director of the Bible Society in South Sudan, for compiling this article.