Learning from legends in Yap
BY SUSAN WILLETT
As a community development worker on Yap, I was aware that my success depended on my ability to recognize and be attuned to local cultural values. A community development advisor must first examine and understand the culture as a whole before assuming any task.
Culture is not what people do, but the ideas and standards that guide their behavior. By respecting and understanding these ideas and standards, a community development advisor can begin to see and hear people's needs and wants.
These are the principles I followed in the project I designed as a Volunteer on the island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, where I served from 1986 to 1988. I had a dual assignment as community development advisor and English language teacher.
In Yap, for cultural continuity and safety, Volunteers must live with Yapese families. I lived with a large extended family, who adopted me as one of their own. During my first few months of service, my Yapese father became my mentor. He taught me many customs and treated me like one of his own daughters, not an outsider. In fact, he inspired the project I am describing here.
In teaching oral English to elementary school children, one reward technique I used was to read aloud a story every Friday after a weekly quiz. I discovered from testing the students' comprehension that they understood best those stories relevant to their culture. Legends from Africa and Australia made more sense to them than did such American classics as Mary Had a Little Lamb or Johnny Appleseed. Unless adapted, these classics were confusing: Apple trees became mango trees and rivers became oceans.
I saw a need for culturally relevant storybooks for these children that would be available to them in English. In considering this need, I remembered my conversations with my Yapese father, in which he had said, "There are a lot of Yapese stories for kids," and began to think of ways to make use of these stories.
The Yapese people, like other peoples of the world, have an abundant store of oral legends. Many are like Aesops' Fables: They teach social values and customs.
Only 50 years ago, education consisted of parents teaching their children basic survival skills by having families gather together at night to listen to their elders recite. Storytelling taught children the customs and values necessary to be a respected Yapese community member; the stories children heard at night reinforced what their parents had taught them during the day.
These legends are familiar to most people on the island, but virtually none are available in printed form. I began to search for these legends. My father was too ill to recite any for me, so I asked my school principal to tape record one. I also wrote to every regional research center, university, and museum in the Pacific Basin, asking if they had any of these stories translated and printed.
The few I received proved to me that these printed legends could be useful in the classroom as a way of teaching Yapese values and customs. Yap, like all rapidly changing societies, has had a problem accommodating the old culture to the new. As one Yapese gentleman told me, "It's kind of mixed up." Yap society asserts, "Obey the local customs"; however, it accepts some Western influences that challenge those same customs. The problem is especially difficult for Yapese children, whose information in school comes from outside sources. Students cannot productively shape a value system when contrasting their lessons in school with what they learn at home.
I therefore asked permission to work with the Yap State Department of Education to develop an English language curriculum based on the traditional Yapese legends. The objective was to give students a solid foundation for them to judge the past and the present and compare the two so that they could reach their own decisions. I received permission and began working with the social studies curriculum writer, who became my counterpart.
The project blossomed. My counterpart showed me two drawers full of transcribed legends and handed me an index dated ten years previously. I suggested he collect and translate some legends and I would polish them. He asked some elders to recite them, and in a month's time, we had collected, transcribed, translated, and edited ten legends.
While I was on vacation, my counterpart had the legends illustrated. When I returned, he proudly showed them to me. I was thrilled!
Given the Yapese culture, it did not seem realistic to expect the project to continue moving so quickly. I made incremental goals of each step, rather than focusing on the end product as the one major goal. I did not want anyone to lose interest. I wanted to help them through each step of the project to have them learn the necessary skills, so that one day those drawers of legends might become an economic resource for the people.
Our next step was to devise lesson plans for each legend aimed at reinforcing the values it expressed. The chief curriculum writer, my counterpart and I met to discuss different types of lesson formats and decided that each of us would be responsible for writing up one. We would present all of them at our next meeting so that we could merge our ideas and create a suitable format to write an individual lesson plan for each legend.
At our next meeting, I presented my work; however, my colleagues had done nothing. They praised and accepted my work but no assistance followed. I could not figure out what had happened to our teamwork.
At this point, I knew I had the following choices: I could let the project be shelved again; I could continue the project alone; or I could back off for awhile and seek advice on Yapese culture, in an attempt to reestablish a working team.
I chose to seek advice. I sat down with my APCD, whom I viewed not simply as an administrator filling out forms and signing papers, but as a friend and valuable resource person.
He explained to me that Yapese people placed a great deal of importance on discussing ideas; that unlike Westerners, Yapese people do not make decisions quickly but need time to think things over thoroughly. He told me they react this way because they live in an island society, a closed society, where people must be extremely careful not to offend anyone because they know each other and live together all their lives. A wrong decision, especially concerning their oral history, could bring about adverse community feeling toward the State Department of Education and/or Peace Corps.
I followed his advice and tried again. I slowed down and quit making decisions for my team members. I waited. At times, decisions were made after five minutes of silence; other times, I waited weeks. More important, I accepted their decisions without criticizing or judging them; I left all decisions in their hands.
The project got back on track. It took longer and was more difficult to accomplish than it would have been if I had operated alone, but we finished the lesson plans together. My teammates' input was essential for community acceptance of our project.
My counterpart organized a pilot test in some of the elementary schools, which we conducted and evaluated. We agreed on some changes, did the final editing, then submitted the material for approval. Once approval was granted, we pasted the material together, and my counterpart coordinated the process of having it printed as a book.
Throughout the project, we always discussed the possibility of publishing the legends and drawings together because we liked the drawings of our talented illustrator. I discussed the idea with the axgovernor of Yap, and we agreed it would best be accomplished if we had the book copyrighted in the name of the Yapese people. Any monetary proceeds could then be used for a public library. At the moment, only the high school and the Peace Corps office have a library, and there is no bookstore on Yap.
During my last three months of service, we collected, translated and edited 30 legends to compile a second book. My counterpart and I were distributing it around the office when the head of curriculum approached us and asked. "Sue, what do you think about publishing this?" I replied, "That's a great idea! You know the procedure better than I do" - and he did. The end result was Yapese Legends, a book of stories in English, written and produced by the Yapese people. The Story of Manbuth, which appears here, is one of these legends.
When I think back on this project, I realize that it accomplished more than I had anticipated. From a personal standpoint, I learned a valuable lesson: It is easy to say one must work within the culture, but it is not easy to do. I knew the importance of being culturally sensitive; yet, without realizing it, I had imposed my Western work ethics on the Yapese, and they resisted.
I realized my mistake and sought advice in order to establish a solid working relationship with my teammates and work within the Yapese culture to finish the project together. Doing so took patience and perseverance, and I had to set aside my personal values about work.
From the community's point of view, the project's main accomplishment was not the books it produced, but the skills learned in producing them and the discovery that they could be an economic resource. Community development is not writing books, but giving people confidence in their own potential, making them aware of opportunities and providing them with choices.
I saw my role as a catalyst for the Yapese people to develop their folklore for their own practical use, as storybooks for children, and as an export commodity to provide the capital for a community service - a public library. They have a process now for capitalizing on a unique resource, whereas before they only had two drawers of transcribed legends collecting dust. They also have a sense of community pride.
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