Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

13 Years of Missionary Life in Nasir/Southern Sudan

by Marion Frank-Wilson,

Eleanor Vandevort arrived in Nasir in 1949, with the assignment to evangelize the villages around the Nasir mission station. She was the replacement for Ray Huffman, a missionary who had been instrumental in the development of Nuer linguistics, and who was due to retire 24 months after Ms. Vandevort’s arrival. In her book, A Leopard Tamed, Ms. Vandevort describes Ray Huffman as "a stout, white woman, her gray hair showing under her brown pith helmet, fixed in a roll at the back of her head, and wearing thick, metal-rimmed glasses, blue anklets and black, Cuban-heeled shoes, and a blue print cotton dress." (1968:28) For the next several weeks, Ray Huffman would be Ms. Vandevort’s teacher, introducing her to the study of Nuer and missionary work in Nasir. Almost immediately, Ms. Vandevort realized that she did not agree with Ray Huffman’s manner of teaching the Bible which she recounts as a rather strict and mechanical way of making the villagers recite prayers without knowing their true meaning (1968:35):

"I was appalled by this system…I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel"

Ms. Vandevort came from a new generation of missionaries, and felt the approach to missionary work should be different (June 2003, email):

"I was the replacement for a woman retiring. I was meant to do evangelism in the villages since that is what she had done. She was a loner who had sat out a claim for land in Kansas before becoming a nurse and sailing to south Sudan. She spoke the language in her own "dialect." Frankly, I was frightened of her. But due to the hiatus caused by WWII and the cessation of in-coming missionary personnel for many years, I became one of the new, young bunch whose efforts were entirely based on their own judgments and understanding of why they were there. I never followed her evangelism plan. It was truly revolting to me. No one else in that Mission followed her example, if they even understood what it was. I spent my days talking to people, asking too many questions, figuring out the language, working with the garden workers, keeping the garden pump functioning, writing a pedagogical grammar etc. etc. I was never bored."

When she first arrived in the Sudan it was with the expectation to spend the rest of her life there – an expectation which the other members of the mission station, a nurse, a teacher, a medical doctor and his wife, shared. She was convinced that the only way to be effective in her work was through knowing Nuer culture and, by extension, to study the Nuer language as the conveyor of culture and world views. While she never faltered in this approach, her opinion about missionary work changed over the years and moved from a state of certainty as to how it should be done to a much more multi-faceted view. In 2003, reflecting on her years in the Sudan, she makes it clear that her own belief system had never been in doubt:

"My work and life view was/is anchored in the Bible without equivocation. God defines himself; I don’t define God…God gives with no respect of persons the gift of eternal life to anybody who chooses to believe and obey his word…And the life of the individual takes on a significant quality, not of superiority, but of a servant. Against this concept the person struggles within the context of every-day living and is strengthened by the words of scripture and truth born from that scripture…It is not a one-time thing. It is, in fact, a way of life…The fact that the Word of God held such profound concepts for our human frailty empowered me to want to try to translate it for the people. It was also the impetus for understanding the people themselves. I could see we had almost nothing in common in our cultures, but the key to my understanding of myself and all others was in my recognition that when facing into the reality of God and his truth, both the Nuers and I were the same."

It was this strong belief that made her want to translate the Bible. She realized that fear of death defined life among the Nuer. God was understood as the one who ‘kills the people’ as well as the creator. When asked about her motivation to bring the Bible to the Nuer, she says "my only answer is my friends were tied into the fear of death and I wanted them to be freed." (June 2003, e-mail)

While she was unfaltering in her own belief, she was frustrated and discouraged by mission policies or, in her own words "Mission Thinking, both at home in the church and on the mission field." One source of frustration was the fact that there was apparently no interest on the side of the Presbyterian mission to understand the culture of the people they were trying to convert: "Coming to the realization that the church in America, and the local church, were for the most part unrealistic and unconcerned blew me away." (June 2003 e-mail) In her interactions with the villagers over the years, she came to understand that the Nuer already had an intact belief system and that it did not necessarily make sense to them to simply accept another, and she admits that "somewhere along the line it became apparent to me that you simply cannot superimpose a theology upon another and expect it to ‘stick’" (June 2003, e-mail). This failure of the Church in its spiritual and educational mission is closely linked to the principles of Native Administration as it was implemented by the British in the Southern Sudan. It is discussed in more detail in Edward Miner’s essay on the missionary history of the Southern Sudan.

Both in her book, and in her 2003 e-mails, she addresses the question of the relevance of Christian missions. She concludes that it is not mission work itself but rather its approach that is at fault (June 2003, e-mail):

"So are Christian missionaries a mistake? It is because of Jesus’ definite command to "go into all the world and preach the gospel" that they exist. But what happens after that is the source of your questioning. And what so defeated me there was that the reality of life among these people was not being addressed. This is not peculiar to missionaries. It is the result of a hasty desire, earnest as that desire may be, to bring order out of a living chaos. Also, leadership must set the sail and hold the course. It is unnecessary for everyone to be asking all the questions, but it is necessary for some so to do, and leadership to heed and direct accordingly. A Christian setting easily becomes a political one. Then all is lost. It is totally frustrating to me that the church leadership in America…any denomination… fails to ask and direct according to what is the nature of those they serve. Programs become the substitute for leadership. It is much easier to base one’s thinking on predetermined answers without first asking the prior questions."

While convinced of the importance of missionary work, she acknowledges that it is difficult to determine when and if the missionary effort succeeds (June 2003, e-mail):

"You asked how success is measured? You’re asking the wrong person…! I used to say that if one presented a person to the American church as Christian it would have been much wiser to have waited 10 years, or until life had been lived before suggesting that this person was no longer under the fear of death. In other words, Christianity is not a club, rather it is a way of life, a journey. When Christianity enters a culture through the people it transforms the culture, it does not destroy it. It does likewise for the individual. I did see a few people live that life, and it was a joy for me. Baptisms had little meaning for the most part in my experience there. It became a sign that a young man was not Moslem, which enters the realm of political reality and another subject altogether."

Ms. Vandevort’s frustrations and issues with mission policy are closely related to Kuac’s problems. Kuac was the inspiration for her book’s title, A Leopard Tamed. His life as a Presbyterian pastor, and the dilemmas resulting from it in many ways exemplify the frustrations and dilemmas she faced as a missionary in southern Sudan.

Kuac had been a school boy at the mission, then went to secondary school at the Bishop Gwynne Divinity College south of Nasir and close to the Ugandan border, which had been established by the Church Missionary Society of the Church of England. After that he was ordained, as the only Nuer pastor, in the United Presbyterian Church. He eventually married and he and his wife lived at the mission where he worked as a pastor. At that time, they had a child who later died at the age of two. Occasionally, he would accompany the other missionaries on extended trips to the villages to preach the Gospel, although he would never go on his own. After Ms. Vandevort’s departure, and with political tensions rising in the Southern Sudan, he ended up in jail several times, once in solitary confinement for a year for reasons which were never made clear. However, it seems obvious that he was associated with the expelled Western missionaries who had been perceived as a threat to the (North Sudanese) Muslim government. Ms. Vandevort remembers him as a "mild mannered man, but not easily dissuaded from his conception of reality. He certainly was not a follower of the local government, but neither was he belligerent. At that time we were all being watched. And our local friends had long since become "informers" to the officials." (June 2003, e-mail). These difficulties eventually forced him and his family to leave the Southern Sudan and flee to Ethiopia where they lived in a refugee camp. We know from letters he wrote to Ms. Vandevort that he and his wife had two more children during that time, and eventually, he married a second wife (June 2003, e-mail):

"I had written telling I understood why he needed another wife and thought nothing more of it. He, of course, was under scrutiny from fellow pastors etc. and was pushed aside, I think. But I wasn’t there, so I don’t really know. I do know we were way ahead of ourselves in attempting to direct the way a Christian should behave in marriage."

In the book, Ms. Vandevort portrays Kuac as a man with a strong Christian belief who felt strongly about his work as a pastor, but who was increasingly at odds with mission administration. One source of conflict was that he found it difficult to reconcile his identity as a Christian pastor with that of being a Nuer. The Church did little to support him in this conflict. Ms. Vandevort is very much aware that with his introduction to Christian religion came an introduction to Western life style with all its material/commercial elements. She describes that, for example, he no longer slept on the floor but on a bed, and in his hut he now needed a kerosene stove to boil water for his tea, etc. Although he received a salary, it was not the same as that of the American missionaries – a fact which did not escape his notice and which eventually made him lose his initial enthusiasm for his work. A trip to a church conference in Nigeria would deepen his feelings of discontent. Ms. Vandevort describes his trip as an eye-opener where he saw not only the work of pastors in other parts of Africa, but also "had to understand where he fit in this larger sphere of influence." She recognizes his problems not as created by him, but as a failure of the Presbyterian policy which ignored important elements of Nuer culture and was inflexible in its approach (August 2003, e-mail):

"There was no disconnect between Kuac, the person, in the village, or in our house at the Mission. He was who he was, hence, the despair which hounded him as a member of the Church. In that setting he simply did not comply. Sort of like a colt which could not be broken."

The fact that Kuac would never go to the villages on his own to preach seemed symbolic of his identity as a Nuer pastor, who shares the beliefs of his missionary colleagues and yet is still integrated into Nuer culture. Ms. Vandevort explains (August 2003, e-mail):

"The simple answer is that such behavior is not the "ciang naath," which means, "the way of the people." Or you could say, "The law of the people." To go against it is to create suspicion that you are a "person of the white man" for example. (The word "ciang" comes from the word "cieng" which means the homestead. The standard reply to Where is so-and-so? was, He/she went "rey cieng"…."went home." It could also mean, …"went to the village." The verb could mean "to live at a place").

So the "ciang naath" is the bed-rock for all behavior, or attitudes. It was the expected answer to the question Why? When one attempted to uncover behavior patterns, for example. The ciang naath determined your personhood, your Nuer-hood.

It follows, then, that it was not the way of the people to enter a cieng and begin to talk about an idea, a philosophy, and certainly not about God. By the time you reached adulthood you knew everything you were expected to know. There was no new learning, I found.

Discussion was based on the familiar, e.g., a lost cow, canoe, a situation between clans such as marriage, death, travel, etc. (Of course I didn’t realize that when I was there). Even writing it down here brings me to say that reality was defined in practical terms."

Ms. Vandevort and Kuac worked together closely during her years at Nasir. They were friends: she was his confidante and teacher in religious matters, and he was her teacher of Nuer. In fact, she says that it wasn’t until she met him that her language learning really took off. In her 2003 emails she recalls that she would listen to the villagers, ask questions, and discuss Nuer grammar with Kuac (June 2003, e-mail):

"All during that time I was listening and listening and listening to the Nuers, and thinking, Why did you say it that way? What in the world did that mean? Was that long, short, medium, breathy…hey, Kuac, if you can say it that way, can you say this, too"

It is during those years that the index cards [1], [2], [3], [4], verb lists, and pedagogical grammar were created. Later, she and Kuac also collaborated on translating parts of the Bible. She had recognized the need for a pedagogical grammar early on when she still studied with her instructor, Dr. Nida, at the Summer Institute of Linguistics. She recalls that it was at SIL when she first realized the difficulties and potential errors inherent in translation work, and it was Dr. Nida who conveyed to her the importance of creating pedagogical grammars since it would help her successor to learn the language. In retrospect, she says that writing the grammar was a great ‘teacher’ and helped in the translation of the books of the Bible which she and Kuac eventually produced: Genesis, Exodus, Mark, Luke, 1 and 2, Peter, James.

Ms. Vandevort is well aware of the shortfalls of translations. In A Leopard Tamed she discusses her problems of translating Christian concepts and worldviews into the Nuer language - which was based on a completely different set of concepts and worldviews and in many cases does not have corresponding values. She knew that to literally translate a sentence would not necessarily be sufficient to convey these concepts in the other language. Reflecting on the difficulties of translation in 2003 she says (June 2003, e-mail):

"In translation one of the serious problems is: one learns within such a small circle of people, about limited subjects. For example, I remember sitting in a court case just to test myself and I was lost most of the time. Cattle vocabulary, the coloration and markings of all the various ages and genders and types of cattle coupled with the non-discriminating 3rd person "it" and "they" made for a veiled discussion no matter what the subject was. Here, I think, words took on colorful meaning and nuances which take work and time for the foreigner to grasp.

…Because I readily saw, as I learned the language by asking questions of Kuac, that our scripturally defined words did not coincide with the particular Nuer word. Hence when it dawned on me (and I was walking along a path in the village at the time, and I’ll never forget it), that the too familiar statement of Jesus in John 3:16 ["For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."] made no sense in the Nuers’ understanding of those words – when that dawned on me I was leveled to their situation. And I knew then that the task was beyond me. From then on, I realized that the empowering of the Word of God belonged to him alone. There is something about how God cherishes the human heart which is outside the authority given to the Christian. It is the responsibility of the Christian to make God’s Word available to all, however. No words can engender eternal life unless God causes the heart to understand. As God said, "Manlooketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart." So translation of the Bible is essential, though it can not be perfect.

…As for concepts – yes, concepts are not easy. And the reason I said the task was beyond me did not include the translation only, but the meaning of it. Not that the words were inaccurate, but that the words could not convey the totality from God’s standpoint. I knew enough to realize that words take on meaning from life’s experience, and to "load" a current world with implied meaning was overload in this culture. God did not love, for example. Rather, he killed. He did create. So it made good sense to me to translate the book of Genesis. And then, the "cattle book." The book of Exodus.

…But here’s the thing about translation which I guarded against: who of them knew what the original was meant to say? That’s the trick. And well-meaning missionaries would say, anything is better than nothing. I don’t believe that.”

Language not only took a central part in her missionary work. It also defined her relationship with Kuac – much of their work together was spent on studying language and translating the Bible, and this activity in turn revealed Nuer culture to her. As the above quotations show, it also revealed to her her own limitations in the missionary endeavor. Despite the awareness of those limitations, when she left Nasir, Ms. Vandevort felt that her translation work, the translation of God’s word, had been worthwhile. She recalls one instance where she was invited by the head man of a household to come and teach the Bible to his family. The headman had learned to read and knew the Bible. It was because he liked it that he wanted his family to know about it too. And Ms. Vandevort realized that "this is where the translation comes in because I know he enjoyed working at reading it and found it to be his language. That was victory to me. I knew the words were right." (August 2003, e-mail). And yet, she left with the knowledge that her translations would probably be short-lived since the government had issued the order that Arabic was the official language of the country, and her translations were in the Roman script. In fact, we don’t know how widely they were used or read after she left Nasir. In 2003, Ms. Vandevort points out that there has been another translation of the Bible into Nuer that does not incorporate her and Kuac’s work. For a more detailed account of Ms. Vandevort’s linguistic work, see her pedagogical grammar; for a discussion of the missionary and linguistic history in the South Sudan, see Edward Miner's essay.

In August 2003, when these interviews and conversations took place, Ms. Vandevort is no longer in contact with Kuac, but knows from a phone call from a Nuer in Los Angeles, that he was still alive earlier in 2003. She has also received a picture of him taken two years ago. She believes he now lives in Malakal/Southern Sudan.

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Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others