Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Took a Village

On October 9, at approximately 10:00 in the morning, we were welcomed to our village living allocation by many smiling faces. The bodies attached to these faces helped us unload our things from the truck and place them in the house that had been designated for our use. We met our Wasbrata, Junior, who had built the house, and our Wasmama (his mother, Carolyn). Later we would meet our Waspapa, Rex, and another Wasbrata, Pais. We did not have the privilege of meeting their daughter, Sylvia, who lives and works up on the north coast of PNG.

Junior’s wife, Joan (pronounced Joanne) and daughter, Cristalisa, stay with Joan’s parents during the week (closer to town where Joan works) and would come on the weekend to meet us. Once our stay was complete, we were told, they would come to live in the house.

A few days later, a nephew, Daniel, came to stay with our Wasfamili. He turned out to be another great Wasbrata, investing a good deal of time and energy into helping us, teaching us, and introducing us to many aspects of PNG culture.

The entire family was very gracious to us, sensitive to our needs for time and space, and generous with their resources and knowledge.

In the afternoon, we were taken (girls by girls, guys by guys) to our respective washing areas at the nearest river. This was an adventure I was only marginally prepared for. Yes, we’d bathed in rivers on the three-day hike, but this particular site required that prospective bathers traverse a steep, muddy embankment to get into the river, and then, again, climb said embankment on the way back out. When all was said and done, though I was a bit more muddy than before, I was less sweaty, and, I suppose that most of you would have agreed with me that that was a vast improvement.

Then they took us to get water. We were told that we were going to a spring that was about 600m from the house. I kid you not, though, it was a good mile and a half. One way. And, similar to the port of entry for the bathing area, a muddy cliff stood between us and the source of the sulphurous-smelling spring water. Mama prefers, she told us, the taste of the water from this particular spring, but the next day she showed me a closer (and more easily accessed) spring. We couldn’t tell the difference in taste, so we stuck with spring number two from then on.

They thoughtfully provided lunch and dinner for us on day one, so that we would not have to cook when we’d barely even unpacked. At dinner time, about 20 people arrived at our house. We planned to eat outside, but just as the blessing was being said, we were swarmed by hoards of some kind of flying insect. Everyone quickly retreated into our lower level, the Haus Kuk, and more or less successfully escaped the swarm. We would find out a week or so later, when another several thousand (insects, not people) swarmed us, that these were termites and that they came out after heavy rains. Fortunately not every heavy rain, we came to realize, because playing “Whack-a-Termite” during dinner gets old really fast. And then the critters lose their wings, littering the ground, floor, mat, bedroll, whatever in a not-so-decorative sort of way that must be swept up.

But, I digress.

We met many people during that first dinner, and I tried to write down their names and relationships, ages (if they knew them), and grade level in school (if applicable) so that I could begin to piece together, at least in my mind, the community we would be living among for five weeks.

Our house was one of three in our small area of town. We were approximately a 5-8 minute walk from the village “downtown,” so we were kind of “out of the way” of most traffic. Our house sat just a hundred meters or so from the beach and we’d been warned about sand flies. While we were not visited regularly by many people, we were frequented by these near-invisible, annoying, biting insects. Apparently, if you live with sand flies for a long time (three months or so, I was later told), then they will no longer bite you. However, that didn’t help me any and soon I was covered in sand fly bites - more than 200 on my arms and more than 100 on my back. That was the one day we counted. The kids were moderately affected later on in our stay, and Paul got very few bites. Apparently I had the special blood.

Trust me. I felt very special.

Over the next few days we got used to “doing life” the village way. I washed clothes in buckets with water that didn’t always look much different after washing than it did before (the picture below shows the "before" water). We made fires two or three times a day to prepare food. We bathed in the river, or bucket bathed outside the house (or if we were lucky, we got a good rain during the night and could go outside and "shower" in the rain!), and utilized the liklik haus for more, uh, urgent matters.

We taught the neighbors how to play Uno and Spoons and the village children enjoyed Father Abraham and the Hokey Pokey.

The kids attended the elementary school for two days before diving into their own school work sent from POC. They were well received there, though their comfort level with Tok Pisin was inadequate to make them feel completely comfortable with the thought of engaging in much conversation with the other kids. It would take a few weeks for them to loosen up completely.

One day, Mama took me on a walking tour of the entire village so that I could make a map – one of our many village assignments. The walk took over three hours, and that was with a significant shortcut. The village covers much square area, and is made up of smaller villages surrounding a small mountain. No one lives on the mountain, but they do garden on the sides and top of it.

We also were given assignments to make cultural observations, construct a family relationship chart, teach skills to them (banana bread and tortillas!) and learn skills from them. Paul helped Daniel and Junior build a Haus Win. I learned how to make coconut oil and, from that, soap. The kids and Paul learned how to paddle a dugout with an outrigger. From what I hear, it’s not as easy as it sounds, as the outrigger tends to make the canoe go in circles. But, no one capsized, so that was good.

Mama took me to a few ladies’ meetings in a nearby town. Apparently, the government has a new program that offers financial assistance to ladies groups for the purpose of carrying out community development-type programs. These were interesting opportunities for cultural observation as I listened to the (sometimes heated) discussions about chicken houses and the prospect of regularly taking market produce by boat two and a half hours down the coast to a mining site.

We attended the village church with our Wasfamili. I especially enjoyed listening as the children in the nearby Sunday School building (of sorts) sang with all the zeal children can muster. Our kids went to the Sunday School, which was in Tok Pisin, though they said their teacher spoke English to them some. On the third Sunday, I walked the kids to their class and waited there with them for the teacher to show up. When about 20 kids were present and the teacher was more than 15 minutes late, I asked them if she ever doesn’t show up. No, they assured me, she always comes. I waited a few more minutes and then told the kids I could, if they’d like, read them a Bible story (from the Tok Pisin Bible). They said that sounded good, so I got comfortable and found the story of David and Goliath. While I read, the teacher came up behind me making shushing motions so the kids would not let on that she was there. When I finished the story she introduced herself and then asked me to ask questions of the kids to see if they had listened and what they'd learned. I did. Then, she said, at least I think she said, “Now, apply it to their lives!”

Oh my!

I did. At least I tried.

Village living was great for practicing hearing, understanding, and speaking Tok Pisin, that’s for sure! The teacher later invited me to come back on our fifth (and last) Sunday to lead the Sunday School class again. With some time to prepare, I decided to read the story of the Tower of Babel and discuss how the pride of men had led to God confusing the language of the people and scattering them, with their different languages, around the world. Now, I pointed out, there are thousands of languages – 860 of them in Papua New Guinea alone!

I read some verses out of the English Bible and a Tok Pisin Bible, and asked the teacher to read the same out of the Bible in the language of the village (their particular Tok Ples has a New Testament that was completed by SIL personnel a decade or so ago.) I asked the children to think about which translation was easiest for them to understand, and linked this to the purpose for which God had called us to Papua New Guinea – to support the work of Bible translation. We want every child to have God’s Word in his or her own language, to be able to clearly understand God’s message to all of humanity.

One day I went with Mama to help another relative (I think she was somehow related to pretty much everyone within the five closest communities) plant a yam garden. I really didn’t know what to expect before I got there, but I soon got the hang of it.

With a radio playing loudly to the side, men were going about digging the initial holes in the ground with spades. The women who owned the plots came behind them and placed yams in each hole. The ladies and older girls (including me) would crouch down next to a hole (this took some getting used to by my over-forty back), remove the yams and set them next to the hole, then work the soil by hand, breaking up clods and removing old roots and such. We would scatter a later of softened soil back into the bottom of the hole and, then, place the yams (typically two large ones or three smaller ones) in the dirt root-sprout-side down. Then we would shovel, by hand again, dirt into the hole to cover the yams, and work it into a smallish mound. As we finished each section, the men would come behind with hoes and fashion very large mounds of dirt on top of our small handmade mounds.

As we were nearing the end of our 1000+ yam holes (some 2400 or so yams!), I began to consider the scene from an out-of-body kind of perspective. Here I was, a lone whiteskin planting yams in the blazing sun with thirty-five Papua New Guineans. Then as if it wasn’t bizarre enough already, across the radio waves I heard Michael Jackson’s voice: “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.


They say it takes a village to raise a child. I am not sure, at least in my culture, that I would generally agree with that, but in this case, it did take a village to “raise” a new missionary family!

And I think they did a pretty good job of it.


  1. So glad to hear from you! The girls and I were just wondering how you were settling in.
    Praise the Lord for this wonderful opportunity! Praying for the harvest!


  2. It's so great to have you back "online". And, we're thankful for the village that took such great care of you. And now on to the next phase of your journey. May God accompany your every step!


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