“Officer… are you saying you want a license?… wait… you want to give us a ticket for what exactly?… it’s how much?” Today in Nicaragua I felt the full effects of the language barrier as I tried to communicate with a police officer in Spanish regarding a minor traffic violation on the part of our driver. Frustration is the ideal word to describe this situation. I like to think that I can speak Spanish fairly well, but I was still struggling to communicate in such a completely different culture. Though we were eventually able to smooth things over and get out of a ticket, it was certainly not without a struggle.
Thus, after my first day in Nicaragua… all I can say is that language is a powerful tool. It has the ability to be both a barrier and a blessing. When limited and restricted, it causes confusion and chaos. But when allowed to flow more freely, it facilitates beautiful conversations and can even act as a bridge between cultures. My conversation on the airplane with a Nicaraguan woman named Ena is a prime example. I was reading the book “Surprised by Hope,” as we were ascending when she noticed the cross on the cover and asked me about it. We started talking and by the end of the flight we had covered the topics of heaven, hell, Jesus, resurrection, separation of church and state, and faith on college campuses. In these moments I saw the amazing power of language to unite two people into conversation from different backgrounds, races and faiths. Language transformed us from two strangers sitting in seats 24B and 24C into two friends sharing their thoughts and beliefs with each other.
Obviously, I am talking about oral language in this case, but written language is just as important. The fact is that both Ena and I had formed much of our beliefs from reading books—especially the Bible. The sad reality is that people who are illiterate cannot read the Bible or any other theological books or philosophical works to help develop their own beliefs. N.T. Wright, the author of the book that originally sparked my conversation with Ena, constantly references the Bible as support. In Surprised by Hope,he uses Scripture to explore Christian theology regarding heaven and resurrection in order to draw conclusions about how we should live our lives presently here on earth. It is an enlightening and thought-provoking book. Yet every time that I open it, I am reminded that people who are illiterate can neither read this book nor the book which Wright uses as his guide—the Bible. I think, “How many Christians must there be in Nicaragua who have never picked up a Bible?” (Then again–how many Christians do we know in the United States who have a Bible and the ability to read it, yet still don’t pick it up). In the U.S., we take language so much for granted. Spoken and written communication comes naturally to us because we have been exposed to it since youth, unlike a lot of Nicaraguans for whom reading and writing means a lot of effort. Likewise, in the U.S. we can also take our faith for granted for the same reasons.
I heard a neat story today about the impact of a particular literacy program in India (this is actually the Mission India literacy program which was used as a model for our program here in Nicaragua). It recounts how a group of people in a village became literate through this program and started reading the Bible for the first time. Up until now, they had only heard verses read orally in church and sermons on topics given by their local pastor. But for the first time in their lives, they were able to read and think critically about the Bible for themselves. It enlivened the church and people began to approach the Pastor with loads of questions about things they had read in the Bible. I suspect that the same thing will happen here as well. I was interviewing a young man named Jose today and he told me about the immense impact that learning to read had on his mother, especially in terms of her faith. He said that he is excited to see the effect that this program will have on the rest of his family and his whole community.
As I alluded to in my last post, literacy is not just about learning to read and write. Literacy is gaining a new tool by which to see the world. Here, most people have been told what to believe by other people—either through family tradition and local legends or through teachings given by pastors and religious leaders. In teaching them to read, we enable them to explore concepts like faith and religion for themselves. Maybe one day, they too will have a theological conversation with a traveling stranger who asks about the book that they are reading.