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Language the Key to Culture

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The following is an updated and revised version of an article I wrote in the November 1983 issue of Kipsigis Kommunique our team’s newsletter.  If you are interested, you can get the original from here.

“I will go home if I do not learn the Kipsigis language, ” I told myself in 1974.  I knew that I would be extremely hampered from ministering well if I was not fluent in the Kipsigis mother tongue.  Language is the key to understanding culture.  If I did not know the language it would be impossible to understand what the tribesmen think about themselves, me, and the world around them.  It would be just as challenging to preach the gospel to them in a meaningful way without knowing their language.

I could observe actions of the people, but that would not get me into their minds.  Only language fluency could reveal their thoughts.

The team of missionaries working in Kipsigis (Fielden and Janet Alison, Gailyn and Becky VanRheenen, Richard and Cyndi Chowning) were fluent in the language in 1983 when this article was originally written.    It was difficult to learn to make the sounds that make the difference in saying”sins” (tengekwogik) and “song” (tienwogik).  It was a struggle to start sentences with verbs and end most words with the harsh sounds of t, k, or ng’.  But it was worth the two years of study to make us feel comfortable in conversing with Kipsigis people.

Before we began to work among the Kipsigis, we had a knowledge of some basic anthropology and even some insights into how Africans view the world.  But the tribes on this continent vary greatly in their understandings.  Only a study of an ethnic group’s language lets us truly minister among them.


In 1983 we could understand ninety percent of what two old men were saying to each other under the shade of a a thorn tree.

“The wind blew down the corn in my neighbor’s field yesterday,” one man said to another.

“Yea, that family has some evil in it,” offered the friend.

Hearing conversations like this taught us that calamity is the result of wrong, at least in the way those Kipsigis back then looked at it.

“My stomach is eating me,” one old man said in the usual manner of describing a stomach ache.  We learned that sickness, as the Kipsigis see it, is not solely the result of germs, virus, or infection, but the spirits could also be involved.

The young man was defiant as he stood looking out the door of his hut,  “Don’t you call the spirits of the dead in my hut.”  He was attempting to prevent his mother from calling the spirit of a dead ancestor to indwell the baby that his wife had just delivered.  Babies are thought to be the embodiment of re-incarnated ancestors.

Numerous conversations like these gave us the cultural understandings that helped us build bridges of understanding as we shared the gospel.

The structure of the language gave us some culture clues, too.  There are three past tenses and one, selfom used future tense.  We took this as a clue that Kipsigis, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, placed more importance on the past than the future.

Knowing their respect for the past, we paid special attention people were talking about past events.  Often in the evening, old men used ancient riddles, proverbs, and myths to entertain and instruct their fellow villagers or family.  We collected these stories and used them as anecdotes and illustrations in our lessons.

Understanding the Kipsigis language also allowed us to hear Christians talk to one another about the sufferings of fellow believes and the weakness some in churches.  Hearing them cheering the progress of new congregations gave us an understanding as to what they viewed to be the attributes of a successful congregation.

Much of what we hear finds its way into our lessons.  We came to the Kenya with a knowledge of scriptures.  We could have assumed that was enough for an effective evangelistic thrust.  But we would have fallen short of our potential and God’s ideal.  After all, His apostles were fluent in the language of those among whom they ministered.

Like it or not, national evangelists will, to a great extent copy the missionaries in both the form and content teaching.  Most of the national preachers in the few other denominations preached with few culturally relevant illustrations.  But as the years went we would get comments from nonchristians about the evangelists from our churches.”These men speak to us about our ways and how God can help us as Kipsigis.  I did not know that Christianity had any use for Kipsigis ways.”  The culturally relevant lessons we missionaries have taught have been taken and improved upon by the Kipsigis evangelists.  And they have added a multitude more.

Our fluency in Kipsigis was the a key to making the words of God “good news.”  Knowing the language gave us responsibilities, too.  If we can speak their language we are expected to understand how to conduct ourselves.  One who does not know the language may be excused from observing Kipsigis etiquette and respect.  We who speak the language are expected to know how to behave.  We would be judged rude, at best, if we were to speak of sex in a mixed audience.  We would be seen as unfriendly if we refused to hold hands with a man.

Knowing the Kipsigis language not only kept us in Kenya, but it deepened our love for these people for who Christ died.  To Christ the credit and glory is due.  He answered our prayers to become fluent in Kipsigis.