In March, along with 5 others I worked with, I attended a Biblical Storytelling Seminar in Mutengene (on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon – the English-speaking region) organized through the Biblical Storytellers Network, International. Several biblical storytellers from the US came to lead it. It was conducted in English.
Later, I typed up my notes and then created a document in French others could use (i.e., more details and explanation) with the plan of introducing biblical storytelling through my projects in CAR. Well, you know that I have been evacuated – well, OK, twice – so I had some extra time on my hands. I translated the document into Sango, too – then got some help from a university student in N’gaoundéré to make the Sango intelligible to others.
After I taught a class to Bible School students (in Garoua Boulai) about preparing to read out loud (see the earlier blog entry), I thought a good follow up would be biblical storytelling. It was almost the end of the semester so students were soon to be going back to their villages. I talked to the Director of the Bible School about using three mornings right after the National Holiday on May 20. He agreed so the dates of May 21, 22, and 23 were set.
Initially, I offered to work with the 20 Bible School students. The Director suggested we invite the Bible School professors (himself and two men for the students and three women for the spouses) and the local church workers: 1 pastor, 1 evangelist, and 7 catechists. I agreed. The day the students were helping me to prepare the written invitations, they said that they wanted their spouses to attend, too, since they will also be working with church activities in their parishes. Why not? The more the merrier, no? So the number of invited was now about 55.
The next hurdle was “to feed or not to feed.” Usually, seminars here offer participants lunch (or meals). I had told the director that neither the Bible School nor the church nor I had a budget for this seminar; I offered to pay for coffee at the break, but no meal. He agreed and I even wrote it into the invitation so it would be clear (and not “as usual” for a seminar). Clear as mud, maybe. When I talked to the women who would be helping to prepare the coffee, they said if I offered bread or peanuts (snacks) with the coffee, it would become expensive and, consequently, it would be cheaper to make a simple meal. I was concerned about the time involved since these women were a student, and two of the professors who I wanted to attend the sessions. We went around and around. The chaplain of the hospital then stopped by to say that the people from town were glad to come, but, really, we need to serve food. In the end, I stood firm (since, after all, they might be providing labor, but I was buying supplies…). We offered coffee, tea (which means milk and sugar in profusion), and beignets – locally made doughnuts.
I am very glad that that was the final decision. The women asked that we heat water on my gas stove (it is easier and quicker than a wood fire…) and they would lend thermoses so it could be done before the seminar began each day. They said they would come to help get things ready. It ended up that I prepared the water, made coffee, and organized most of the break supplies before starting to teach. It turned out to be a good time to review the story that I was to tell that day! One professor came with the beignets and did help to set things up.
This entire tempest in a teacup was happening when I was feeling most stressed about preparing materials and sessions. 55 potential participants. Who would come? How would this work? The spouses have been learning French and literacy in Gbaya this year, but their literacy skills and knowledge of French would not be strong enough to participate in the way the others could…
I had already planned to have the days divided into parts with me leading the session and parts in small groups so that participants could learn stories. Since I had already worked with the students to learn to read effectively aloud, I decided that they could help lead the small groups – that process is similar to the one used to learn Bible stories by heart. But, things were now much more complicated. I could still ask students to help, but groups for the spouses would have to have texts in Gbaya. And, much of the memory work would have to be led by the group leader who would read so that the others could repeat and learn. – These group leaders would have to be among the best.
The next step, then, was to get the texts ready. I wanted the seminar to be practical and give participants a sense that they could, indeed, tell stories this way on their own. Days 1 and 2, they learned stories for which I prepared the texts by dividing them into episodes and phrases. Day 3, they were to do the text prep, learn the story, and consider specific ways they could use it. So, for the first two days, I picked stories from Mark 1, 2, and 3. Mark is a great book to use for beginning storytellers since is chocked full of stories (a tip I learned in Mutenguene). That way, after learning the stories, we could have one participant from each group tell the stories in order and hear an entire book (Day 1, Chapter 1) or most of two books (Day 2, Chapters 2 and 3 – leaving out a few verses that aren’t really stories).
For Day 3, I picked the Gospel lesson for the coming Sunday and another story from Mark (that could be used in Sunday School classes). Participants then chose the story with which they wanted to work – and whether they wanted to work in Gbaya or French. I figured then, maybe, some could actually use what they were learning that week.
Now, which texts to use in Gbaya? If all the spouses came, it would be 20 people – 4 groups. I decided to use some of the same stories as groups would be learning in French. I couldn’t prepare those texts alone, though. I typed them into the computer (already a challenge since written Gbaya uses many letters we don’t: ɛ, ɔ, ŋ, ɗ, ƃ, ɂ, etc.). Then, during my regularly scheduled Gbaya lessons, my teacher, a student at the Bible School, divided them. (Yes, I keep up with my 2-hour-a-day class throughout the preparation and seminar! I told you I bit off more than is reasonable to chew!) He was also a great help in thinking things through and listening to my stories as I learned them.
So, in the midst of preparing texts and other materials, sessions, coffee, etc., I also learned three stories to tell – one for each day. And, I chose the longer ones so that participants wouldn’t be overwhelmed… I did have more than an hour to learn them, but it was still somewhat overwhelming for me!
I decided I wanted nametags to get to know people, esp. those who weren’t students. They don’t sell nametags in Garoua Boulai, so I bought sticky notes. I decided to write out the names – to learn them a little and to save time since people here are not nametag-oriented. I was glad I did prepare ahead of time because the sticky notes were so well stuck together in the packs (old, no doubt) that they wouldn’t come apart without tearing! Plan B. I went to the market and bought large safety pins. Then I wrote the names on regular paper. That worked well.
The long answer: About 25 -30 participants came. The number varied on different days, but many were there for all 12 hours. Attendees included: most of the 20 students (some had to miss a day – e.g., one’s sister broke her leg…), 6 spouses (one came late), the director (who had to miss some time because of other pressing work), and one catechist from town. I wonder if the others (professors, pastor, evangelist, hospital chaplain, and other catechists from town)didn’t come because there wasn’t any food… Maybe a factor, but surely not the only reason?!?
Although the reduced number meant that I had prepared too many texts, it didn’t matter. I was thrilled to have so many and to have those who were truly engaged and wanting to learn. They had never done group work like this before, but did a fantastic job! On Day 2 we were able to generate a list of characteristics of good storytellers which we then used to critique each other – good points first and then suggestions for improvement.
I learned all three of my stories and told them each at least twice. It was a good model for them and enabled us to study story structure and characteristics of storytellers. On Days 2 and 3 we used my small camera to make videos of the storytellers, including me. I also took lots of pictures during the three days. At one student’s suggestion, at the very end, each participant stood up and told what s/he got from the session and made suggestions. (I had hoped for suggestions about the seminar itself, but, really, students here have not been asked to do such evaluations, so they mostly thanked me and said that this work would help them a lot in the future. Several added that they want me come back to work with them more and gave a couple of possible topics.)
Friday, the day after the seminar, I took my computer to the daily meditation. After the service, we looked at the pictures and videos. I had also prepared one picture for each of them as a souvenir. Thanks, again, to Robert my Gbaya teacher and Bible School student who helped me identify the people in the pictures so we wouldn’t forget anyone!
When I finish this blog entry, I want to make some notes/changes on my plans so that this seminar is ready to go on the road! It was overwhelming and a lot to bite off at once, but I am glad to have done it the way I did – despite all the work and stress. It was worth it.