*This is the fifth of a seven-part series about our pre-allocation trip to the Mubami people of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The purpose of our trip was to discern God’s will regarding us potentially starting a new Bible translation project in the Mubami language, which currently has no scripture.
Day 5, March 3, 2018
Today was our longest day of travel. I woke up to the sound of hammering. Walking out onto the veranda, I realized that they had been busy nailing down some of the loose boards on the veranda and installing a handrail on the steps leading up to the house. I chuckled to myself. After just one day they had already come to the conclusion that this big white man is going to kill himself if we don’t “whiteskin-proof” our house!
Before breakfast, we took a canoe—a roughly 20’ long hollowed out tree trunk with a small 15hp motor on the back—back down the river to the site of the new airstrip. This was my first time riding in a traditional canoe in PNG. While I’m sure that it was a very large tree it made a very narrow canoe—just wide enough to fit a single file line of seated people, and not quite wide enough to comfortable turn sideways in the canoe. I thought to myself, “I’ve really got to lose some weight!” Any time I tried to shift my weight to get more comfortable, the whole canoe would rock prompting some nervous looks and chuckles from the others in the boat.
Being overweight in America really doesn’t affect your daily life too much, as long as you’re not morbidly obese. You can drive pretty much anywhere you need to go, you don’t have to wonder whether your house will support your weight, and—aside from commercial airlines which are uncomfortable regardless—there are few seats that are uncomfortable if you’re a little overweight. In the village, however, it can mean falling through the floor of you house, capsizing your canoe, or—worst of all—falling through the floor of the liklik haus (outhouse)! I’ve heard that it’s happened before—fortunately to no one that I know—but I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of traumatic experience you need professional counseling for afterwards.
To get to the proposed airstrip site was about a 15 minute canoe ride then a 1km hike up to the plateau where they’re building the airstrip. To say that it’s not yet finished would be an understatement. The 800m strip had at one point been bulldozed, but it had been several years and the jungle quickly reclaims any ground that you don’t actively maintain. The surface was red clay and a good portion was covered with small trees and shrubs. I was able to use my phone’s GPS (GPS works even when there’s no cell coverage) and a map app I’ve come to rely upon for use out in the bush (TopoMaps+) to plot out the coordinates for the proposed strip and get a rough measurement. I’ll take this information and some pictures back to Ukarumpa to get information from our Aviation department on what all needs to be done to open the strip. I’d say that they’re still a couple years from getting the strip approved for use, but it’s promising. The proximity to Sogae would definitely make it much easier to get in and out of the village.
On our way back to the boat, someone cut us some wild sugarcane to chew on. It’s quite tasty and refreshing after hiking for a while in the sun. When we got back to Sogae we had breakfast before heading out again for Sasereme. From this point on, they gave us differing varieties of sago at every meal, including one that was actually quite tasty. Once, they cooked the sago in bamboo with coconut and banana. It made a sweet, desert like version of sago that I actually would make for myself. “Finally!” I thought, “A version of sago that I actually like!” It was encouraging to find that there are ways of making their staple food that I actually enjoy and our kids will probably like, too.
After lunch we took the dugout canoe with the 15hp motor upriver to Sasereme. On the way there, I got to talk a good bit with Rex. I learned that he had been asked by the church to become a pastor, but since he wasn’t able to afford the school fees for the 3-year Bible school, he had been unable to become a pastor. Each of the pastors in the area go to a 3-year Bible school run by some of the Gogodala ministers in a village near Ugu. It’s a big commitment, both of finances and time. I only met two Mubami pastors in the Mubami churches—the rest were Gogodala men.
So, unable to become a pastor, Rex became a teacher instead. He teaches the primary school (grades K-2) at Sogae. He is paid every fortnight (two weeks) by the government. He earns a decent enough salary by PNG standards—most people are unemployed, at least in the traditional sense—but his salary is a far cry from what Americans teachers would earn. Sometime after becoming a teacher, he was elected chairman of the Mubami District—an area which includes all of the Mubami ECPNG churches except Ugu, which is so far south that it belongs to another district. He said that the chairman position is a paid position, but he had declined the salary. “The church really can’t afford to pay me, anyhow, and if they did pay me and I continued to receive my salary from teaching, I’d be a rich man, and that wouldn’t be good,” he said. I had to consciously remind myself not to let my jaw drop visibly. A rich man? Here’s a man who—even if he did accept both salaries—would still be below the poverty line in the US by a wide margin and he’s concerned about making too much money. I was simultaneously convicted and humbled by the depth of character he displayed in that moment.
The 15hp motor eventually got us to Sasereme, but it didn’t do it quickly! It took us about an hour and a half to travel the 16km from Sogae to Sasereme. We had intended to go all the way to Daiyapi, but the pull cord on the motor broke just as we got to Sasereme, so we pulled into Sasereme and switched boats. A local politician had an aluminum dinghy with a 40hp motor, so we borrowed his boat and made the remaining 5km trip to Daiyapi in about 5-10 minutes. I made a mental note that if/when we get a boat, I’m getting a 40hp motor! The trip down the river is beautiful and peaceful, but if we ever had an emergency, I’d want something with a bit more “get up and go!” Plus, it would make visiting villages farther out a little more feasible.
Just as we were about to pull up to Daiyapi, I had a horrifying realization—I’d left my cell phone in the other canoe that we’d left at Sasereme! I’d had it out taking pictures and must not have seen it when I gathered up my belongings and transferred to the dinghy. Not wanting to worry Rex, I decided to keep it to myself and pray that it would still be there when we got back.
We were greeted in Daiyapi by probably 60-80 villagers. They gathered underneath someone’s house as we explained why we had come. They had much the same reaction that we had seen in Sogae, Palieme, and Kamusi—they were thrilled that someone was finally considering helping them translate the Bible. They, again, explained that they don’t understand the Tok Pisin, English, or Gogodala Bibles and that they want to be able to read God’s Word in Mubami. We didn’t spend a lot of time at Daiyapi because we still wanted to stop by Sasereme and visit with some Dibyaso language speakers as well, and it was already mid-afternoon. The people, I think, wanted us to stay longer so they could prepare us food, but we explained that we still had a lot of ground (and water!) to cover, so we needed to get going. They apologized that they hadn’t been able to host us properly because they didn’t know we were coming and insisted on cutting down some fresh coconuts for us to drink before we left. I’m convinced that fresh coconut water is nature’s Gatorade—it’s incredibly refreshing after a long day in the sun. We thanked them for their hospitality and made our way back to Sasereme.
I let Rex know that I had left my phone in the canoe, so we detoured back to the canoe to see if it was still there. There aren’t any Mubami speakers that live in Sasereme—it’s much like Kamusi, a logging camp that has people from many different language groups that live and work there, but all of the Mubami workers just commute from Sogae or Daiyapi to Sasereme for work. The dominant language group is Dibyaso, but we hadn’t met anyone from Sasereme, so I figured that the chances of recovering my lost phone were slim outside of God’s intervention. When I checked the canoe, I realized that my phone had slid underneath the raised wooden seating platform built into the bottom of the canoe. There it was, unmoved. What an answer to prayer! Finding my phone would turn out to be a bigger answer to prayer than I realized.
After breathing a sigh of relief, we hiked our way up the hill to speak with the Dibyaso pastors. The Dibyaso people have, like the Mubami, been asking for help with Bible translation for many years now. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough translation advisors to provide help to each of the remaining 300+ living languages in PNG which need their own translation. So, they wait.
We gathered under the pastor’s home there at Sasereme and explained why we were here. Of course, the fact that we were there considering working with the Mubami in Bible translation was little comfort to the Dibyaso, but I tried to comfort them and encourage them with the fact that there might be the possibility of including them with the Mubami in a multi-language (translation) project (MLP). Such an undertaking is complex and difficult, but it’s being done in multiple different projects. One of the most powerful stories of an MLP is the Aitape West project in the Sepik in PNG. The documentary “Arop” is a powerful testimony to God’s working through such projects. We also encouraged them that oftentimes its easier to get translation advisors in areas where there’s already another established project. Not many people are fond of the idea of starting a new project in an area where there are no other active missionaries. It’s a daunting task, to be sure. “So,” we said, “Perhaps if we come work with the Mubami, someone else will come work with you.”
It felt like empty platitudes, but it was the only comfort I could give them. The fact of the matter is that there are many obstacles to running an MLP and even if an MLP does develop with the Mubami and Dibyaso, it will almost certainly require additional missionaries to keep the project afloat. So, the sad truth is that the Dibyaso are now in the same position that the Mubami were in when Phil and Chris Carr allocated just downriver from them in the Bamu language back in the 90’s. The words of that elderly Mubami man in 1995 echoed in my mind: “We know that you’re working downriver with the Bamu people, and there’s a translator working up north of us, but here we have no one. We want the Bible in Mubami. Can you tell your bosses to send someone to help us?”
My heart breaks for the Dibyaso and the many other language groups like them who are still waiting for someone to come help them receive God’s Word. I want to help them, but I can’t be in two places at once. Maybe God will bless our efforts and an MLP will come to fruition. But, even if it does, we would need help to make it successful. I wonder, will the Dibyaso have to wait twenty more years before someone comes to help them? And by that time, will the door still be open? Surely, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
We found out while we were there that the airstrip at Sasereme is fully operational. That gives us one more option for travel to and from Sogae, so that was good to know. On our way out, we stopped by the trade store in Sasereme and bought some more fuel for the canoe which had now been repaired. It was now close to sunset and we still had an hour and a half canoe ride back to Sogae!
On the canoe, Jennifer and I finally had some time to talk semi-privately. (Personal, private conversations are hard to come by in the village!) I asked her how she was leaning, trying to get a feel for her thoughts on allocating to the Mubami. I had been praying that if God really wanted us to allocate to the Mubami that he would make it as clear to her as he had to me. She smiled and explained, “I was already pretty sure that God was leading us to work with the Mubami, but I just wanted a little more clarification. So, knowing how unlikely it was that your phone would still be on the canoe two hours later when we got back to Sasereme, I prayed ‘God, if his phone is still there, I’ll take that as confirmation that this is where you want us.’” I smiled and laughed. God had answered three prayers in one—my prayer that my phone would still be there, my prayer that God would make it clear to Jennifer, and Jennifer’s prayer for confirmation. We talked for a while about it to make sure that we were both 100% sure and then decided that we would make our announcement the following day (Sunday). Then we snapped a selfie to commemorate the moment.
As it got darker, we could see the large fruit bats flying overhead, most of them with about a 3’ wingspan! The ride back was peaceful. There’s an indescribable peace that comes from knowing that you’re following God’s will. Even though we were tired, sore, and sunburned, we had peace.
That night, we got back after dark. I told Phil about our decision and he gave me a big hug and whispered praises to God for answered prayer. Rex had invited all of the villages that we had visited to come to church at Sogae the following day to hear me preach, so we decided that during church would be the best time to make the announcement. All of the villages we had been to would be represented (except Waliho), and that seemed to be a fitting conclusion to our time in Sogae. Monday, we planned to catch a ride back to Kamusi and then go by boat to visit Diwami on Tuesday. But, our main purpose for coming had been fulfilled, so it seemed like good timing to go ahead and announce it so that they didn’t have to wonder anymore.
We ate dinner that night and I enjoyed a newfound freedom with the people. Without the question hanging over my head, I was free to relax and just enjoy their company and get to know them better. I slipped away a little early to finalize my sermon for the next day and slipped off to sleep. Tomorrow would be the culmination of several years of waiting for us, but decades of waiting for the Mubami.