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The Last Word in Rhetoric: Ithele Traditional Singers/Storytellers, Meaningful Communication, and a Reading of 2 Timothy in Mozambique

Author: Alan B. Howell and Sam Pflederer
Published: Summer–Fall 2019

MD 10.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Among the Makua-Metto of Mozambique, Africa, the omwisho (or last word) has an important rhetorical function. Someone giving counsel in this context may touch on different topics or themes, but certain verbal cues help the hearer identify the communicator’s main point. Traditionally, ithele singers creatively use both story and history to exhort their hearers to respond by living appropriately. Approaching Paul’s last letter to his apprentice Timothy, his last word, in light of these communication patterns, has allowed for a reading that resonates with a Mozambican audience.

In an interview about communication patterns and strategies among the Makua-Metto people, one of my (Alan’s) friends told of an experience that was significant to him. Their family had been sitting near the fire after supper one night when his father, now deceased, began telling a humorous story. Everyone was drawn into the tale, laughing when it was over. But before the laughter had stopped, his father made a serious final observation. At that moment they all understood that the story had a deeper meaning and connected it to their own recent experiences as seen through the lens of his conclusion.

Cross-cultural communication requires a knowledge of language that goes beyond the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. It requires an appreciation of rhetorical and communication dynamics. To truly understand the meaning, we need to be able to recognize elements at the macro and micro levels of communication. In many settings, a Makua-Metto speaker begins with a proverb, story, or observation that may at first seem unrelated and disconnected from the topic they want to address. They often will not move toward the point sequentially but slowly circle closer and closer, touching on different themes, before eventually landing with a surprising burst of speed on a conclusion, a last word (omwisho) that ties what was said together at a specific point.

While a complete analysis of Makua-Metto rhetorical strategies is certainly outside the scope of this article, we will share observations about larger patterns and specific message markers or sign posts that are important for meaningful communication in this context by looking at the way that ithele singers/storytellers1 (whose closest comparison may be the griots of West Africa or the imbongi of South Africa, though the epic poet Homer is another useful analogue). In the Makua-Metto language, the word ithele typically means a myth, tale, or fable with an ethical point. We will explore how the rhetorical strategies of ithele singers help shape the task of preaching. After that we will briefly examine Paul’s final communication to his apprentice Timothy in light of the communication patterns and dynamics among the Makua-Metto to appreciate how a Mozambican audience can hear the great Apostle’s “last word.”

Macro Elements in the Rhetoric of Ithele and the Practice of Preaching

To understand the work of an ithele singer, we will describe a recent performance by a well-known singer known as Nhihapusiya. After sitting down next to his apprentice singer, he made some introductory remarks to a small crowd. Our performer then began telling stories (fables with animal characters as well as tales of human actors), during which he would often pause and lead a song or a verse of a song with the help of his apprentice before continuing on with that story. Nearing the end of a tale, he would indicate a transition to its thematic point where he would give a short moral or counsel for his hearers to implement in their own lives. Nhihapusiya told stories that addressed a variety of topics: the need for respecting authorities, counsel regarding marriage, and encouragement to his hearers to work hard and not steal. After an application and conclusion of a given story, he would lead a song or chorus unrelated to the story that served as a transition before beginning his next tale. This process cycled multiple times before the ithele performance finally terminated.

In summary, the ithele singer typically uses a macro rhetorical structure that begins by telling a story, uses a verbal cue to mark the transition, and then moves into exhorting people to live by a certain code or standard—elements that compare naturally with Christian preaching. Accordingly, in qualitative interviews with an ithele singer and with Mozambican church leaders and triangulation of the principles gleaned from the data in small groups,2 we found that ithele is a helpful model for talking about the promise and process of preaching.

In talking with Mozambicans about the way that “story” and “code” are the primary ingredients in ithele as well as in meaningful communication for the people of God, two biblical texts have been especially helpful. The book of Exodus is divided roughly in half between the story of salvation of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt (chs. 1–18 covering everything from the ten plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea) and the code for the people that God gives in calling for their transformation (chs. 20–40 covering everything from the 10 commandments to the construction plans for the Tabernacle). In Exodus 19:1–20:3 we can note a transition between these sections as their encounter with God on Mt. Sinai shifts the emphasis from the story of salvation to a call for transformation.3 A book from the New Testament where Mozambican participants can also see this same ithele-like macro structure at work is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Chapters 1–3 retell the story of salvation, then, in 3:14–21, a prayer marks a transition before moving on to the code that Jesus’s followers are called to live out. Exodus and Ephesians are example texts from Scripture that highlight a macro rhetorical strategy similar to the one used by ithele singers in the Makua-Metto context.

An illustration that has been helpful for talking about the importance of both of these elements in the process of ithele and preaching is the example of a bicycle. The “story” is the back wheel of meaningful communication and it provides the power, while the “code” is the front wheel, offering direction, helping the hearer to go safely down a good path. No one could get far on a normal bicycle missing either of these wheels. We talk about how an effective ithele singer would never leave out either of these parts, and effective Christian communication will also be sure to include both the story of salvation and the code for life in God’s kingdom.

One difference between preaching and ithele is that while the traditional singer/storyteller spends a much higher percentage of time on the story than the code or moral offered at the end, Christian communicators in this context tend to spend more time on the application of the story to the specifics of everyday life. Often, though, they will tend to do so in a way that is indirect.4 That is not to say that since less time is spent on it, the moral or code is unimportant or insignificant in ithele. Interviewees and participants agreed that the final word or moral (code) of the ithele was the key to understanding the point of the tale (story).

One memorable example of this was a meeting that Alan participated in where Christian leaders were dealing with problems caused by a rogue church leader. One of the men addressed the group by telling a story of a man who had a pig that had grown fat and aggressive and was beginning to destroy property and even kill younger, smaller pigs. Alan winced, thinking that the speaker’s point would be that the group needed to find a way to get rid of this church leader. Instead, the owner of the pig, in this story, put a metal bar through the pig’s lips—allowing him to eat, but curbing his ability to do damage. The speaker quickly transitioned to his counsel for the group, saying that we needed to find a way to stop this leader’s destructive habits. This speech was met with applause because it helped the group clarify our objectives and methods. While the ratio of story to code may differ between ithele and preaching, for both types of communication it is necessary to pay attention to the code given or the hearer may misunderstand the real point of the story.

Another difference between preaching and ithele is the use of songs. Ithele singers will pause the story and sing part of a song in a way that holds the audience’s attention and builds anticipation for the rest of the story. This practice is one that preachers among the Makua-Metto people could make better use of to augment their communication. The way ithele makes use of songs reminds us of a popular reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he pauses his written sermon and inserts what may be one of the earliest Christian hymns to highlight his point.5 The apostle seems to have made use of songs within the rhetorical flow of his communication.

We see many natural connections between ithele and the practice of Christianity in the Makua-Metto context. One example is a contextualized picture of Jesus as preacher. An image that has stuck with us from Nhihapusiya’s performance was seeing him, sitting down, holding a young child in his lap while he presented to a room crowded with people. That made us think of scenes from the Gospels where Jesus, the storytelling king, would welcome children to him, constantly speaking to crowds of people about his kingdom. When we interviewed a traditional king from this area about ithele, he said that kings in the past would rely on ithele singers for history and that any good king would be familiar with these stories/histories so he could give good kingdom counsel. In post-colonial Mozambique, ithele seems less connected to kings and more for the population in general as education and entertainment.

Micro Elements in the Rhetoric of Ithele and the Practice of Preaching

We have looked at the macro level of the rhetoric of ithele in our context in northern Mozambique to find clues to increase effectiveness in Christian communication. Now we will turn our attention to the micro level of rhetoric to find specific words and markers essential for meaningful communication among the Makua-Metto and briefly explore their connections to 2 Timothy.

Ithele stories are instructive for showing how Makua-Metto rhetoric works. The first and most obvious lesson is that Makua-Metto discourse is interactive. At the beginning of each story, the singer/storyteller would teach the audience a short musical refrain relating to the content of the story, and at different points he would lead them in singing it. Also, throughout the performance, before moving on to a new story, he would use call and response to make sure the audience was paying close attention: “Nihaawo? (Are we all here?)” “Nihaawo. (We’re here.)”

As already noted, ithele stories follow a predictable two-part structure: a long story followed by a concise (often single-sentence) moral explanation or code. The transition is impossible to miss. Sometimes a storyteller will spell out the explanation in so many words, for example: “This story tells us that. . . .” More commonly, the transition is marked by certain key words or phrases that automatically tell the reader that the moral of the story is coming. Nhihapusiya consistently used the word maanaca (the meaning) to mark this transition. Other storytellers may use one or more variants of this, for example: maana aya wiira (its meaning is that) or phimaana (for this reason).

This last marker is interesting because it tends to be used more widely, not just in stories but also in exhortational discourse like that of 2 Timothy. Obviously, Paul’s letter to Timothy is a very different kind of discourse than an ithele story. Nonetheless, the importance of the last word (omwisho) is an important common thread. Unlike Paul’s discourses in Greek, sermons and exhortational discourses in Makua-Metto make use of only a small handful of logical connecting words. Two in particular stand out as overwhelmingly the most common: vano and phimaana. Though these two words often get confused with one another in translation because of their overlap in meaning (both can sometimes be translated in English as therefore), they actually play distinct roles. To continue the bicycle analogy, vano is like the pedal and phimaana is the brake. Vano is used all throughout the discourse, sometimes to signal a logical inference drawn from what was said just before, but other times simply to move on to a new point in a general fashion. In this way it is roughly as flexible as the Greek conjunction de.

Phimaana, on the other hand, has a more limited usage. It tends to occur much more frequently toward the end of a discourse. The information that follows it usually sums up the main point, which may have been previously stated or implied earlier in the discourse. Sometimes phimaana makes an explicit application from a story used to counsel someone indirectly, much like Nhihapusiya’s stories. Like the brakes on a bicycle, phimaana slows the discourse down toward a stop. Its message can be generalized as follows: “What came before is the basis for what I’m telling you now, namely that you should do X.” The discourse may take many turns and even apparent changes of subject, but the last word ties it all together and ensures that the hearer leaves with the main point in mind.

In the Makua-Metto translation of 2 Timothy, one might hope to find phimaana before Paul’s ultimate exhortations to Timothy, since the exhortations are bringing the discourse to a close and summarizing different commands Paul has given throughout his letter. Instead, we find that Paul’s last word to Timothy contains highly unique linguistic features that more closely resemble a “first word” in Makua-Metto discourse but that nonetheless underline the supreme importance of the command more effectively than anything else could. Thus, we will see that instead of activating the brakes as we would expect, Paul in a way “pedals the bike” forward in the hope that Timothy will keep the momentum going as he continues to preach the Word. The rhetoric then speeds up as Paul’s last word is an exhortation to keep the Word going through the ministry of his apprentice.

In a small survey of exhortational discourse, I (Sam) asked eight Makua-Metto speakers to imagine themselves in a situation where they needed to counsel someone, and I then recorded a short discourse from each. To my surprise, every one of the participants spelled out the main exhortation of the speech at or near the beginning using what linguists call a “performative” verb—that is, the very word itself performs the intended speech action, as in “I’m telling you this” or “I declare to you that.” This kind of sentence is much more common in Makua-Metto than in English, and the seeming redundancy creates an expectation that what follows will be important. After beginning this study, I began experimenting using this kind of language when I needed to give someone advice or direction, for example telling a work crew how I wanted them to construct a bamboo fence in my yard. In each case, when I got to the main point and said, “I’m telling you the following [pause],” I could observe the listener’s ears almost visibly perk up. This kind of language is typical of a “first word” in Makua-Metto discourse, to which the last word often refers back.

Performative sentences of this type are somewhat rare in Paul, but these few examples introduce rhetorically powerful statements (e.g., 1 Cor 15:50; Gal 1:9). Thus, to a Makua-Metto speaker, it is clear that Paul already has Timothy’s attention when he opens the final section of the letter with the performative Greek verb diamartureo. But this is even more pronounced due to the semantics of the word itself, which means “to exhort with authority in matters of extraordinary importance, frequently with reference to higher powers and/or suggestion of peril.”6 Paul not only puts both his own name on the line but even invokes as witnesses God and Christ Jesus the judge, further underlining the gravity of the moment. No precise parallel of such a rhetorically charged command can be found anywhere else in Paul’s letters. Clearly, the commands that follow are of the sort that must not miss their intended target. In the next section we will look more closely at 2 Timothy in light of ithele and Makua-Metto rhetorical strategies.

Reading 2 Timothy and the Rhetoric of Omwishoni and Ithele

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes an appeal to his young colleague to remain loyal to Christ, to the gospel, and to Paul himself while also addressing the issue of false teachers.7 Paul, arrested again, has been taken to Rome, and nearing the end of his life, sends one final letter.8 It focuses on “Timothy and his character and leadership and teaching. There is no attention to church order and no discussion of Christian roles either in the house or the house church, and there are only two short sections on the opponents. . . . This is fully and truly a personal letter.”9 Witherington further observes that, “one gets the clear sense that Timothy is in over his head. This letter shatters the illusion of the inexorable progress of the Pauline mission and makes clear that there were many difficulties, even at the end of Paul’s life, when one would have hoped that the congregations established earlier would have been mostly stable.”10

While Paul is in chains, he wants to make sure that Timothy understands that God’s word is not chained (2:9). In 1:6–14, Paul references fear and shame, two chains that have the potential to keep Timothy (and Makua-Metto believers) from sharing the word,11 but encourages his apprentice to act honorably, using his gifts and authority to preach the word and not give up. Paul goes so far as to say that if Timothy doesn’t preach the word, following his example, that he will bring shame on Paul (1:12). Timothy is challenged to model his life after sound doctrine and continue the legacy of faith he’s been given (1:6, 14). The word of God is not chained as it is still walking around freely, embodied in others like Timothy who are faithfully sharing the word.

Witherington notes that, “The rhetorical analysis of 2 Timothy has not been properly undertaken in full,” as most commentators only really deal with the “micro-rhetoric not the macro-rhetoric of 2 Timothy.”12 Witherington analyzes the rhetoric of the letter in connection with similar examples of persuasive discourse from that period and concludes that “we have in 2 Timothy more of the vintage Paul, the Paul who wants to offer one last full rhetorical salvo taking advantage of the full arsenal of macro-rhetoric. Forming careful arguments that are presaged by a thesis statement and lead up to a peroration, the rhetoric of 2 Timothy is powerful and involves the ongoing development of a full discourse. Timothy is being galvanized to change his current behavior and get on with using his gifts and doing the tasks bequeathed to him by the great Apostle.”13

The rhetorical force of the whole of 2 Timothy builds until it reaches its climax in the charge in 4:1–8. Witherington describes 4:1–8 as the “peroratio” or conclusion of his discourse.14 He notes, “All along Paul has been charging and urging Timothy to do or be one thing or another as a minister of God. Now those charges are brought to a climax or final distillation, all introduced by an oath to indicate the seriousness of the final major exhortation.”15

Towner, commenting on the rhetoric in 4:1–2, notes, “This single sentence in Greek begins the charge by underlining its gravity (v. 1) before setting out the terms of the task (v. 2). The seriousness of the obligation being laid on Timothy is emphasized in two ways:” (1) affirmation that the charge was made in the presence of divine witnesses (God and Christ); and (2) acknowledgment of the authority of Christ and his future appearance as eschatological judge.16 So, in v. 1, we see Paul referencing the history of salvation—the story of Jesus as the true judge who will judge justly both the living and the dead. In v. 2, Paul shares the code that he is calling Timothy to live by. Since 2 Timothy is Paul’s last word, then ch. 4 is the last word of the last word (his “Omwisho Omwishoni”), which is: Preach the word! It is interesting that Paul’s last word is an exhortation for it to not be the last word, but that this good word would keep spreading. “It is the Word that is to be preached,” and Timothy should “not let circumstances determine whether he does it or not. In addition, he is to convince, warn and also encourage or use argument, reproof and appeal—in short, rhetoric. We might say that preaching takes several forms and involves all three of these actions: convince, warn, encourage.”17 Timothy is to teach the story and the code by offering explanations of the story and giving counsel for proper application. In the Makua-Metto translation of v. 4, the word ithele is used in a negative or false sense, which serves as a good reminder that what Timothy, and his heirs today, are called to speak is the true myth or ithele, not the false myths/ithele. Similarly, in Portuguese, the national language of Mozambique, the word história can mean both factual history and fictional tale. There are people in churches who will want to hear false histórias/ithele of personal ambition, sin, and death so they can follow those codes, but that is not what we are to preach.

Later, in 4:6–8, “the impending death of Paul supplies the element of urgency that supports the charge to Timothy.”18 Towner, commenting on the structure of the section, notes that “verse 8 concludes the section begun at v. 1 by repeating the theme that initiated the commission to Timothy: final judgment. Now the athletic theme is extended to the point of reward for victory.”19 Paul also uses his own life as an illustration—he is in chains, knowing that he is about to give his life as a sacrifice, but that is not going to be the end of the story because God’s word is not chained—it will continue through apprentices like Timothy.

The Makua-Metto people are very familiar with master-apprentice relationships. All professions are expected to have some type of formal or informal apprenticeship. Ithele singers have an assistant or apprentice to accompany their singing, and that is how an ithele singer is trained. They sit beside their master, learning the stories and songs, and when that person retires or dies, the apprentice steps into the master’s role. Paul is saying that even though he is about to die, Timothy is his apprentice and should continue the sharing of the word.

During Nhihapusiya’s recent performance he paused often to sing a song that concludes with the word saminiya (Makua-Metto for open flame kerosene lamp).20 This final word, sung like a chorus by all the participants present,21 is a way to say, “Bring the lamp/light . . . don’t stop . . . keep going . . . keep telling the story.” Ithele performances often go late into the night and singing saminiya is a way to encourage everyone involved to continue—even though it is getting dark, the song needs to continue. A connection with 2 Timothy that resonates strongly here is this: Paul doesn’t want the ithele to stop. He wants his apprentice to continue the song, to continue the story. This is a strong message for Makua-Metto Christians. Since so few have become disciples of Jesus, and so many people are still in darkness, preachers of the word need to keep bringing the light into dark places.22 Paul’s final counsel, his last word for Timothy before he dies and the fuel in his lamp runs out is: preach the word in and out of season—even when it is getting dark—saminiya.


Paul was a master rhetorician, schooled in the methods and conventions of his day. His communication style reflects an education in the ways of Aristotle and others.23 Cross-cultural communicators would be wise to explore and appreciate the conventions of macro and micro rhetoric that can augment the preaching of the word in their contexts. For communicators serving the Makua-Metto people, we have found that ithele singers can serve as a helpful model and an inspiration to answer the call issued in Paul’s last word (omwishoni) to Timothy, to keep preaching the word, making sure that this last word is not the final word.

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three girls lived in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Alan has a MDiv from Harding School of Theology. The Howells resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team serving among the Makua-Metto people.
Sam Pflederer and his wife Elizabeth live in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, after moving there in 2015 to support the Makua-Metto Bible translation project. Sam has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Dallas International University.

1 We could refer to ithele performers as poets, storytellers, or singers. Since the most common verb used to describe the ithele performance is wiipa, which means “to swell” or “to sing,” we will refer to them as ithele singers in this article.

2 I (Alan) did individual interviews (20 minutes) with a few church leaders and then discussed these findings with small groups or classes of mostly men (over 105 participants total at different stages in the development of these ideas).

3 Unfortunately, it does not take long before they break the code (in Exod 32:19–20 this is recognized by the breaking of the tablets), leading to more stories of salvation in the future.

4 Westerners typically value direct communication, but our Mozambican friends and colleagues often prefer to play a different kind of communication game. Their rhetoric tends to be more indirect, making use of riddles and proverbs, which is often more convincing than addressing a topic directly. Communication and conversation are to be savored—not gulped down quickly. That dynamic appears in both ithele and preaching as well.

5 While this is a common reading, it is important to note that understanding the “Christ hymn” as an actual “hymn” is certainly under debate. For more on this topic see these recent studies: Michael Wade Martin and Bryan A. Nash, “Philippians 2:6–11 as Subversive Hymnos: A Study in Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory,” JTS 66, no. 1 (2015): 90–138; and Ben Edsall and Jennifer Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” JSNT 37, no. 3 (2015): 290–311.

6 Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 233.

7 While Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles in general and 2 Timothy specifically is a matter of debate, the Makua-Metto churches assume authorial authenticity. In light of this assumption, and lack of a “compelling case . . . to exclude the reasonable possibility that the letters are actual, individual letters to historical persons and situations,” we will “read the letters as they purport to have been written” (Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006], 83–84).

8 Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1–2 Timothy and 1–3 John (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 66.

9 Ibid., 301–2.

10 Ibid., 302.

11 For more on the rhetoric of honor, shame, and fear in the Makua-Metto context, see Alan Howell and Logan T. Thompson, “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2016), 157–65.

12 Ben Witherington III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 173.

13 Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 175.

14 Witherington, Letters, 362.

15 Ibid., 363.

16 Towner, 595–6.

17 Witherington, Letters, 365.

18 Towner, 611.

19 Towner, 614.

20 Interestingly, the reference to letting your light shine in Matt 5:16 in Makua-Metto is translated using the word for kerosene lamp (“ipharele isaminiinyenyu iriyari yaathu”).

21 Different traditional singers in different parts of Mozambique will use different choruses. For example, in Zambezia they use different terms.

22 For Alan, this has been a deeply meaningful text during the process of leaving Mozambique after 15 years serving as a missionary among the Makua people. In saying goodbye to the churches and people we have worked to disciple here, the chorus of saminiya has been a way to encourage followers of Jesus to keep preaching the word and keep bringing the light.

23 “Rhetoric was a tool usable with the educated and uneducated, with the elite and the ordinary, and most public speakers of any ilk or skill in antiquity knew that they had to use the art of persuasion to accomplish their aims. There were not only schools of rhetoric throughout the Mediterranean crescent, rhetoric itself was part of elementary, secondary, and tertiary basic education as well” (Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 5).

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