Christian missions at the forefront
of the fight for literacy.
UNESCO as one of the most significant and successful branches of the United Nations has played a part in the upsurge of literacy throughout the world, especially after the Second World War. However, national leaders in various countries have readily acknowledged that Christian missions took a leading part in the battle for literacy long before that. It is through Christian missionaries that many languages have obtained an alphabet, including Mizo.
Before the arrival of Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ and Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ in 1894 attempts had been made to represent Mizo in Bengali characters. This was only natural as Bengali is one of the world’s great languages, being spoken by eighty million people in Eastern India, but the experiment was not a success.
Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ and Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ adopted the phonetic Hunterian system which was based on the Roman alphabet. It was clear, simple, and immediately successful, so much so that a Mizo chief called Khamliana came to the missionaries and learned to read and write in two weeks. Children also found it possible to learn to read in a few weeks. There are only one or two small variants to the letters in the English alphabet so it was possible to print Mizo using English metal type, and also to type Mizo on an English typewriter. This has proved an enormous advantage.
Scattered over a large and rugged area of north-east India and Western Myanmar there are numerous tribes whose languages are closely akin to Mizo. There is Ralte, Zou, Biate, Hmar and Thado to name only a few. None of these had an alphabet before the end of the 19th century. Mizo had the good fortune to be the first to acquire a script. The others have rapidly followed suit.
Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ and Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ knew they would soon be moved on by Mr. Arthington when the two arrived, and throughout 1897, they concentrated on translating the Books of St. Luke, St. John, and The Acts of The Apostles from the New Testament. It was their intention to finish these as soon as possible and place them in the printer’s hands. Their choice of New Testament Books was shrewd. There have been instances of pioneer Protestant missionaries starting their translations with just one of the New Testament Gospels, or even the Book of Daniel, some started with the Book of Genesis. However, the two Gospels chosen largely complement each other, and the story of the early church in Acts enabled converts to get the Christian message in perspective. This was a good start to Bible translation work. The translation of the Old Testament was eventually completed in 1955.
A Mizo ‘Grammar and Dictionary’ was published by the Royal Asiatic Society with seven thousand words, which became the nucleus of the large and detailed dictionary published by Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ in 1946.
The educated Khasi Christian Rai Bhajur had arrived in Aizawl with Jones in 1897 and had then helped greatly in launching the first Primary schools. Some of the first pupils were in their early twenties. They came not just from Aizawl but from distant villages. The 1901 census put the figure of educated men in Mizoram at just over 1,000. For whatever reason the passion for mastering the printed page seems to have gripped the Mizos from the very first, and soon they were keenly aware of the power of print as an emancipating force.
Mizo’s growing in interest in the printed word meant that Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ was compelled to devote a good deal of his time to not only to writing educational and religious books, but also to their printing and publication. Among the educated Mizos that helped him prepare textbooks was Pu Pasena. They had to fit in with the Indian curricular system and meet with the current Primary School examination requirements. There were several long established inter-denominational Christian societies who had long experience in this and provided help which Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ gratefully acknowledged.
My late father’s portable typewriter.
Sialsuk Primary School 2.
Click images to enlarge
in a new window.
Page 18: Literacy.