Like other members at the Assemblies of God Church in Abancay, Peru, Marcelina Sauñe (above) would occasionally need to sign documents related to the congregation’s business affairs.
While fellow believers wrote their names, Marcelina could only provide a fingerprint of her thumb. For, until a few years ago, the middle-aged Eastern Apurímac Quechua woman could not write or read.
Sauñe explains her journey, from the darkness of illiteracy to the light of literacy, as she stands quietly at the crowded, downtown market in Abancay in the Apurímac region of south-central Peru. She is selling small blocks of cheese brought from farmers in the countryside. Other vendors around her are noisily hawking vegetables, boxes of matches, plucked chickens with feet and heads still attached, cooking oil—and everything else under the sun, blocked overhead this day by blue tarps.
The 40-something-year-old (“I almost don’t keep track of my age”) is at first soft-spoken, almost expressionless. But as she relates the latter part of her story, she becomes more animated. Her eyes sparkle and a shy grin begins to grow on a face capped by a traditional, brown felt hat.
Hers is a story of restricted educational opportunities as a youngster and a late-blooming determination in adulthood to read and feed on God’s Word.
“My parents never put me in school, so I never learned to read,” explains Sauñe, of her early family life on a farm in the Huancarama area. Her mother was more open to it, but her father thought a girl who attended school would go only to learn how to write letters to boys. A distraught Sauñe watched other children around her attending school, conducted in Spanish.
“I found myself feeling of less value. I was very sad.”
Too Busy for Classes
So, Sauñe spent her days tending the family’s animals and looking after her younger siblings, a duty that became even more essential when her father died. As Sauñe grew to marrying age, her mother gave her away against her will to begin a difficult period with her new husband.
“That was my life,” she recalls. “When I was with this man, I did not live well. This young man . . . began to drink a lot, and treated me very harshly and abused me.”
Later, literacy classes were offered by AIDIA, a partner organization of Wycliffe Canada focused on Bible translation and related ministries among the Apurímac Quechua. But by this time Sauñe was a young mother with the first of an eventual six children; she was simply too busy to attend.
Life took an important turn when both Sauñe and her husband became Christians.
“When we both came to the Lord, my husband completely changed and stopped abusing me,” she says.
Having moved by this time to Abancay, the family began attending the Assemblies of God Church. Sauñe craved knowing God’s Word, even if it was still only available in Spanish. But her inability to read was a barrier to the Scriptures. Moreover, her illiteracy meant she was often cheated in her new cheese-selling business at the marketplace, because she didn’t know how to properly count money during sales transactions.
Sauñe did the best she could on her own, praising God by following along in church worship to memorize the songs.
“When they read the [Spanish] Bible, I listened,” she adds, “but I would hear it just for that moment and then I would forget. It did not stay in my head.”
She began taking a Spanish Bible to church, asking persons beside her to mark the text that was preached, so she could go home and have her husband or one of her children read it. But they lost patience and stopped reading it for her. A heart-broken Sauñe wept with discouragement.
In 2006, AIDIA staff began teaching mother-tongue literacy in Sauñe’s church and urged her to attend. It was finally the chance to become literate that she had missed for decades.
“I had a deep desire. I kept saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to learn,’ ” she recalls. “I used to ask God: ‘My Father, I want to learn those letters, what they are saying, in order to worship you—so I can also speak your words, Father. You will teach me. Help me!’ ”
Like the others in the class of about 15, she began to practise writing shapes with a pencil. She gradually learned the vowels and consonants in Quechua, recognized how small circles and sticks worked together to form letters in her mother tongue, and how those letters formed words.
At church, she followed along in the hymnbook, associating what she heard sung with what was written on the pages. “So, little by little, I began to learn to read.”
After six months, she was asked to do a church service reading of Scripture (in the neighbouring language of Ayacucho Quechua). She did so to the degree she could, before sharing her testimony.
While working through several years of AIDIA classes, Sauñe came to another pivotal point in her life, when her seriously ill husband had to go into hospital. With money running out and concerns that her husband might not recover, Sauñe needed God’s comfort. She borrowed her friend’s Ayacucho Quechua New Testament (which was then the most closely related translation available to her type of Quechua).
Knowing that her Bible reading was still very limited, Sauñe prayed: “My Father, this night, I need you to talk to me through your Word. Because who is there for me to trust? It is you. Now, in your name, I am going to open this Bible. Now talk to me about what you want. In your name, I will be able to read. Help me; talk to me.”
Feeling Great Joy
Sauñe had turned to Psalm 40, a perfect fit for her situation. She read the whole passage, which God used to comfort and challenge her to a deeper surrender. She continued to pray; her husband eventually recovered.
“That’s how I learned to read,” she says. “For God, nothing’s impossible. God always helps. He helped me. He put a lot of enthusiasm into my heart.”
Today, Sauñe is a key leader in her Quechua congregation. She leads singing and worship and continues reading the Scriptures, now available in her own Eastern Apurímac Quechua. She would even like to learn Spanish, so she can take God’s Word to those needing to hear it in that language.
“I feel great joy and I give thanks to God,” says Sauñe. “When I couldn’t read, I felt like I was of no value to anybody. Now that I’ve learned, I feel great joy.”
And what about those documents occasionally needing to be signed at her church? Sauñe has graduated far beyond pressing an inked thumb down on paper.
“Now,” the humble cheese-seller says proudly, “I am able to actually sign with my own name.” ***