A Reader in an Oral Culture

by Christine Swanson

I enjoyed reading David Hawkinson’s "The Making of a Reader" very much. He writes about getting everything possible out of a text, reading each line, then going back to read between the lines. I also enjoyed Arthur W. Anderson’s comments about teachers who made him fall in love with words. Reading Pietisten while surrounded by plantain trees with leaves four-feet long and grass that can be up to eight-feet high, I realize how important the pietist book culture has been to me. Let me begin, in oral culture style, with a story.

One evening, my good friend, the Rev. Dr. Mofindo, and I were eating grilled mackerel at our usual roadside place. The fish is served with miondo, fat ropes of glutinous cassava paste, wrapped in leaves and steamed. Okay, so it tastes like warmed--up school paste, but it is great with sweet onions and crushed hot red peppers.

Christine (Kit) Swanson

On this particular evening, two other Peace Corps volunteers were passing by and joined us. Brooke and Scott both teach science at nearby middle schools. Scott really is a rocket scientist, a recent graduate of Cal Tech. At one point, Scott was telling us about the space probe that carries a message to intelligent life many light years out into space. The idea is that extra-terrestrials will find the message, interpret it, and come visit us here on earth. Molindo was skeptical.

It will never work, he said. If a message like that fell on my farm, there is no way I would understand it. I would build a house around the space capsule and worship it.

"No," says Scott. "You don’t understand the message. You call the police. They bring scientists from the University who interpret the message."

"No," says Mofindo. "The police are thieves. I refuse to notify them. I build a house around the thing from outer space, call my friends and family, and we all worship it." By now all four of us are falling apart with laughter and Scott gives up hope that space aliens will ever find us. And yes, Mofindo has seen The Gods Must be Crazy.

Like all African stories, this one has a moral. People from different places think in very different ways. We should not assume that extra-terrestrials think like American astrophysicists. Nor should Americans assume that people in other parts of the world think like college-educated Peace Corps volunteers—or Swedish-American pietists.

Kit and Dr. Mofindo

Learning to function in an oral society has been a frustrating, baffling, but also enlightening experience. I realize I am very used to absorbing information in print. Here in Cameroon, information circulates in oral form, from person to person and over the radio. Some villages still have a town crier who calls people to meet in the marketplace or under a certain tree to hear important news.

In everyday terms, this is what living in an oral culture means. There are no maps. So, if you want to visit a village you have never visited before, you look for someone to show you the way. When you need something you have never bought before (a fluorescent tube, a toilet seat, peanut butter, or a CD), you ask a friend where to get it. And you ask the price.

Even Douala, a city of more than a million people, lacks the equivalent of The New Yorker, Chicago Magazine, or The Twin Cities Reader. You need a friend to tell you about the trendy restaurant located in the building constructed by the Germans about a hundred years ago as a residence for one of the Douala kings. In Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and almost as large as Douala, everyone knows the bakery, Calfatas. There is no sign at the door, but any taxi driver or Peace Corps volunteer can take you there.

Because information circulates through personal connections, it becomes a weapon. Jobs and rental housing are not advertised. Those who want to benefit from the situation can limit important information to special friends, family, or members of the same tribe. Concern about how information will be used or abused can make people secretive, suspicious, tribalistic, and mean. Two years in a row, Cameroon has been named the world’s number one most corrupt country by Transparency International. I cannot help thinking that the information gap contributes to the corruption. Those who have information exploit it for their own purposes. The information have-nots must pay a bribe to find out how to get a passport or permits to open a business.

I teach at the University of Buea in the Faculty of Education. It is Cameroon’s one English-speaking university. The others are French speaking. UB is organized very much on an American model. There are course requirements, course credits, and all the rest. The Vice Chancellor is even trying to launch an intramural sports program, but interest lags. The University is, attempting to impose an institution based on book values on an oral culture. The result is problematic.

First-year students are astonished that some (by no means all) of their teachers expect them to read. Students expect to come to class and write the lecture notes dictated by the lecturer as rapidly as possible. Then they try to reproduce the notes in their answers to examination questions. This does not necessarily come from laziness. Because many schools and most homes lack libraries, drills and dictation are a practical way to transmit information.

For me, university study means reading a variety of texts and arriving at one’s own understanding of a topic. I had great difficulty teaching an introductory course in British literature to a class of about 80 students, most of whom did not read the assigned texts. One evening, I remarked: "Brooke, after thinking about it, I’ve decided students in a literature course ought to read." Brooke burst into laughter and exclaimed: "What? You had to think about it?" Well, yes, I did. Interpreting the text as David Hawkinson describes or loving the very ink on good paper as Arthur W. Anderson does, can only come from a book culture. In many ways, I think the pietist tradition is an extreme example of a reading culture.

Another core value of university scholarship is independent thinking. I think this also is based in book culture. My Cameroonian students know only what they have learned from people they have actually met. They meet ideas as they meet in person those who describe them. In a reading culture, students have access to a wide range of ideas and diverse opinions on the same topic. Furthermore, they have an opportunity to read about many of these ideas in the thinkers’ own words.

Investigation and critical thinking are, I believe, skills that have their origins in book culture. They are also core values of the international academic community. Still, such skills can be taught in an oral culture. An example. I taught a graduate-level course in school-community relations. I did not have access to the relevant books and journals (whatever they might be, I did not know). From my experience in neighborhood organizations, I did know that it is possible to learn a lot from talking to people, all kinds of people. I proposed that each person in the class (nine of us) take responsibility for one of the 13 sessions. We visited various kinds of schools (mission, government, and technical) and spoke with principals. We met parents, teachers, and even the paramount chief. One or two of the school principals are now my friends. So is the chief. I definitely consider the eight students to be my friends. At the end of the course one of them remarked in astonishment: "We made a course out of nothing." Through the personal contacts we made, the students gained experience in gathering information, sorting it out and evaluating it, and applying it to their problems as school leaders. The potential for rather sophisticated thinking was there. We invented a way to use people as our texts.

The personal contact required in an oral culture creates very strong social relationships. Receiving practical information or being entertained by a story becomes an opportunity to know people: People become the text and they must be read. At the market, prices are not marked on the merchandise. Shoppers have to ask the vendor for the price or make an offer. Maybe negotiation will follow. In the process, shopper and vendor establish some facts about each other. How knowledgeable is the other person? How assertive? Is the other person respectful enough to negotiate so that compromise is reached with no one winning or losing? Can shopper and vendor trust each other? My friend Brooke knows some of the vendors at the local market. She goes back to the same women on each shopping trip because they have established a relationship of trust. Brooke generally wants only one hot red pepper at a time. (They are potent!) Because Brooke has established herself as a neighbor, the market women will add a pepper to Brooke’s bag of rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. They add it as a small gift to someone they know. Shopping is more complex here, but also more satisfying than a visit to Rainbow in the Twin Cities or Jewel in Chicago.

Similarly, people rely on their friends and family. Checking accounts are unusual and credit cards almost nonexistent. A parent who needs funds to pay a child’s school fee cannot rely on a line of credit at the bank. Instead, he goes around to relatives and close friends to borrow money, knowing that those people have borrowed from him in the past and are sure to do so again. A child with behavioral problems is not taken to a guidance counselor, but to a family meeting or, in more serious cases, to the chief’s council for advice and correction. Problems are resolved not on the basis of psychological theory, but by people who know the troublemaker and the family well.

Even at the University, personal contact seems to be required. No one likes to leave written messages in my mailbox. Instead, the dean’s messenger spends his days tracking people down to deliver messages. Not only that, but the recipient of the message must sign a log book to prove that there was personal contact. This procedure drives me crazy at times, but the messenger is now my good friend.

My point here is that sophisticated thinking does take place in oral cultures. Those of us who come from a long tradition of book reading just have to be more alert than usual to see it. Brooke was surprised that I had to think about the place of books in a university course. This place, Africa, has me questioning everything, even what I thought were the basics. As a result, I have learned some things about Africa, but also gained new insight into my Swedish-American pietist heritage.

Christine "Kit" Swanson has been a Peace Corps Volunteer (1998-2000) as a Lecturer at the University of Buea, Cameroon, Africa.

See all articles by Christine Swanson