How Bible stories about fish are bringing literacy to South Sudan’s Shilluk people

This article was originally posted by the United Bible Societies.

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, which published the very first Shilluk Bible in 2013, recently initiated a literacy program 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 haven’t gone 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.”

But when he heard the story, Yoane Ajak, who grew up in the first war of Anyanya (1955-1972), said to Prof. Yolong, “We eat fish and our fish do not eat people. What type of fish is this?’” Intrigued, he joined the literacy classes, became a Christian and is now an assistant in the literacy school.

He recently bought a copy of the Shilluk Bible, which he is reading regularly and finding hope in. “This war is making us suffer but one day we will repent, draw closer to him and the war will be over,” he says.

Ozoonwa Nyumbe

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,” she explains. “But when they saw me doing the readings at church services the criticism turned to praise! Other women have also started attending classes now.”

One of the root causes of the 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 is why we have such terribly low rates of literacy here. Many of those in high office do not know how to read and write, and ignorance has spread like a disease.

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. We at the Bible Society are preparing to hand over the literacy project to the churches. We believe the churches are the right platform to reach people and make a real difference, and Prof. Yolong agrees: “The churches will take the literacy program seriously.”

Please pray for peace in South Sudan, and for God to bless this literacy program, which could change lives.