Mubami Pre-allocation Trip, Part 3
Day 3, March 1, 2018
Today we were supposed to catch a ride from Kamusi across to Sogae. Pastor Max spent most of the day yesterday trying to arrange a ride and he told us that there would be a truck coming for us today. So, like the Westerners we are, we assumed that a truck would be arriving today. Before breakfast, we packed up our belongings, neatly organized them by the door and waited for the truck to come. We sat around for a while chatting with whoever came by, and Jennifer enjoyed getting to hold a cute little Mubami kid in her lap.
While we were waiting, I had the chance to talk with a few of the Mubami men underneath Pastor Max’s house (homes here are built on posts raised about 8-10 feet off the ground). An elderly man named Gaulei showed me his tattered and torn Gogodala Bible. The Gogodala are a very large language group just south of the Mubami who have had foreign missionary influence since at least the early 1940’s. Their New Testament translation was completed in 1981 and they have been a powerful missionary force in the surrounding region. Four out of the six ECPNG churches in the Mubami area have Gogodala missionaries as their pastors. Gaulei proudly showed me his Bible and I couldn’t help but think that it seemed to have gotten more use than most Bibles I’ve seen in the US. To be fair, though, paper doesn’t fare too well in the tropics so Bibles age quickly.
I asked Gaulei to read me a passage, curious if he knew Gogodala well enough to understand the Bible in Gogodala. Typically, in a village setting like this, elderly men may know some other languages from nearby peoples, while young men with more access to education may know some basic English or Tok Pisin. Women and children typically don’t know any other language aside from their mother tongue with any significant fluency, though there were a couple exceptions to this norm.
Gaulei struggled through a couple verses with what I would probably classify as the equivalent of a third or fourth grader’s reading ability in the US. But, knowing how to sound out the words of another language is very different from understanding their meaning. I can stumble through reading German—not well, mind you—but I understand basically nothing of it.
“Do you understand what you just read?” I asked him. Gaulei stared at his Bible for a moment then looked at me and shook his head “no.”
I felt like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch couldn’t understand the Isaiah scroll he was reading without help, either, probably because there was no Bible in his mother tongue at the time. He was probably reading in Greek or Hebrew. Without someone skilled in these languages to interpret for him, he would have been hopelessly lost. Even with Philip to translate and explain it for him, eventually he would need the Bible in his language if he ever hoped to reach his fellow Ethiopians with the Gospel.
Rex reiterated what he had told me yesterday. “He can’t understand it because this isn’t his language, it’s the Gogodala language. So, he can read the words but the true meaning—he’s not able to understand that.” Since there’s no secondary school (grades 9-12) in this area, the vast majority of children don’t make it past grade 8 in the Mubami area—most don’t make it that far—leaving them with far too little English to understand the Bible in what has been described as one of the world’s most complicated languages.
Around lunchtime, the people explained that the truck that was supposed to come get us had to first deliver some people to Diwami, but that upon its return it would take us to Sogae. That was fine by us—as long as the truck arrived by 1 or 2pm we should be able to make it to Sogae before dark. By 2:00, we were beginning to have some serious doubts about our travel plans. Someone told us that they had heard that the truck had to take a ferry across the Wawoi River and take someone a little further towards Balimo, but that when it returned we would all go to Sogae. Balimo is a very long way from Diwami, so we quickly got the point. PNGans are typically less direct than Westerners and have a cultural aversion to disappointing someone. They don’t like to deliver bad news. So, if they know what you’re expecting or hoping for, that’s what they will tell you. (One has to be very careful, therefore, not to ask leading questions, because you’ll almost always get the answer you’re looking for whether that’s the “truth” or not! This often-disregarded cultural phenomenon is probably the source of many misleading statistics.) They hadn’t lied to us, they had simply used a culturally appropriate way of telling us “Yeah, that truck ain’t coming today.” We haven’t been here for a long time, but long enough to be able to read between the lines of this gentle PNG let-down. So, we unpacked our stuff again, set up our beds, and resigned ourselves to traveling tomorrow.
Since we had some free time and I was starting to get bored, we walked down the logging road about a kilometer to see another Mubami village called Newtown. While it’s still a part of the Kamusi area, it’s in its own little area off by itself. There were about 10 or 11 homes, most made out of off-cuts of lumber from the logging company with metal roofs, typical construction for the Mubami area. We didn’t really spend much time at Newtown, just walked down there and then back to the church.
That night a group gathered in the church sanctuary around electric lanterns and we talked and ate dinner. I think three different people brought us three complete meals that night. Just as we were finishing the first meal, the second arrived, and then the third. We were stuffed. There’s just only so much rice and tuna I can handle in one sitting, and after having rice and tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past two days, I was not terribly thrilled to see a third helping coming our way. So, we politely nibbled at it a little so as not to offend and then shared it out with all of the people sitting around watching us eat. (Which, by the way, is as awkward as it sounds.)
After eating we chatted for a couple more hours. Phil amused everyone with a funny story about an elderly couple vacationing in an Asian country where they didn’t speak the language. The couple had brought their beloved house dog with them on their vacation. One night, they went to a nice restaurant and brought their dog with them. Since they didn’t speak the language, when they ordered their food they just had to use hand gestures. Wanting to order some food for their dog, they pointed at their dog and then made the gesture for eating food. The waiter grinned, nodded to acknowledge his understanding, picked up the dog and walked back to the kitchen. Later, he returned with the couples’ food. They ate their meal and then flagged down their waiter to pay their compliments and retrieve their dog from his meal in the kitchen. They motioned for their dog and the waiter just gave them a puzzled look. Finally, the waiter mustered up what little English he knew to say, “You already ate it!”
Everyone, including myself, was dying with laughter at the mortification of the elderly couple who had just discovered that they had eaten their beloved pet. As I looked around the room at the men and women laughing, I felt for a moment like I was with a group of old friends. After just two days, they already become like family to me. I looked over at Jennifer who was sitting on the floor with a group of women and smiled because she looked perfectly at home, like she belonged there despite her different skin color, language, and culture.
It’s hard to explain why or how, but in that moment I realized that God had given me the answer I’d been praying for. Before we left, I hadn’t made out a list of “qualifications” for what I was looking for in an allocation. I know that lots of people do, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as long as you’re willing to set aside your list if God says so. Some people’s list includes things like “an airstrip within 10 minutes,” or “cell service in the area,” or any other number of qualifications. But for me, such a list couldn’t answer the primary question I had which was simply this: “Are these the people you want me to serve, God?” That question, for me, was the only one that mattered. The rest is simply logistics. So, instead of making a list, Jennifer and I decided to simply pray that God would make his will clear to us. God knows us far better than we know ourselves, so I knew that He would know exactly what would make his will clear to us concerning the Mubami. And in that moment, as we all laughed so hard we cried, it was clear to me. These people were hungry for God’s Word and we had already formed a bond with them that I simply couldn’t explain. Like Jonathan and David, my heart had been inexplicably and inextricably tied to theirs and I simply couldn’t walk away. They were no longer statistics or stories, they were my brothers and sisters, people that Christ died for.
In hindsight, I’m grateful that the truck didn’t come as planned and I’m glad that I didn’t make out a list of qualifications. In all my planning and careful consideration, I’m pretty certain that such a list would not have helped me to discern the difference between God’s will and my own. And most of all, I’m thankful for that elderly couple who sacrificed their dog for a people group in Papua New Guinea that they had never met.