*This is the first 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 1, February 27, 2018
Yesterday, in the early morning pre-dawn hours, a massive 7.5 earthquake hit the highlands. We felt it at Ukarumpa, but it didn’t affect us. On the way to Kamusi we flew to Walagu and Bosavi airstrips to drop off a couple MTTs (mother tongue translators) and pick up a couple expats (foreigners—fellow missionaries in this case) from their village stays. On our way there, the pilot flew over some of the hardest hit areas and we took some pictures and surveyed the damage. Whole sides of mountains had just crumbled. As people slept, their homes simply collapsed. Many were killed or buried alive and many thousands of people lost their homes, their gardens, and their villages. It was heartbreaking to see the damage that this earthquake inflicted. According to the news, it was the worst earthquake PNG has seen in 100 years. The expat lady we picked up in Walagu said that her water tank had buckled and broke, spilling out all of her drinking water. People are afraid to go back into their homes (and rightly so), and they are afraid to go out into their gardens, many of which are built into the side of the mountains. The aftershocks continue a week after the quake, some greater than a 6.0 magnitude.
After surveying the earthquake damage, we landed at Walagu and then Bosavi. Though most people back in the US would probably consider Ukarumpa a “bush” airstrip (‘bush’ is the Australian term for deep jungle), I would say that landing at Walagu and Bosavi gave a new meaning to “bush” airstrips for me! Walagu was the first time that I ever thought while landing, “Is it possible for a plane to spin out and roll on landing?” Bosavi airstrip was even more fun! But the pilot handled the conditions with skill and the plane held up just fine. These bush airstrips don’t get nearly as much maintenance as they do rain, so it made for a bumpy landing!
After leaving the Bosavi airstrip, we flew up over Mt. Bosavi and then the pilot took us down into the crater! It was breathtaking. I’ve never seen a volcano up close before and I had no idea how big the crater can be! I’d guess that you could easily fit all of my hometown of Cabot comfortably inside the crater. It no longer surprises me that scientists have discovered new species that are only known to exist inside that crater! It’s basically big enough to have its own zip code. After leaving Mt. Bosavi, we continued flying south towards the Mubami. We flew for a good 30 minutes or more over seemingly endless jungle. I thought to myself, “Now this is bush…”. The scenery reminded me of something I’ve seen in National Geographic films or Jurassic Park.
When we landed at Kamusi, I was surprised by how “developed” it seemed, at least compared to Walagu and Bosavi. The logging company has built a couple small stores (similar to convenience stores in the US), put in a long airstrip made of crushed limestone, and carved out logging roads to get their equipment around. There’s a large sawmill, a primary school (grades 3-8), and a good number of people living in and around Kamusi.
When we got off the plane, we were greeted by Adau and Domai—the MTTs for the Bamu language translation project where Phil and Chris Car work. They’re very old now, especially by PNG standards, and their New Testament translation is nearing completion. Back in 1995, Phil had made a trip upriver to Kamusi on a survey with Adau and Adau had been the one to translate an elderly Mubami man’s request for help with Bible translation. Unfortunately, at that time Phil had to tell the man that we simply didn’t have anyone to send to help the Mubami translate Scripture. That unknown elderly Mubami man is most likely dead now, and none of the Mubami seem to know who it was that made the request. So, Adau was very happy that we were there to consider working with the Mubami.
We were also greeted by a number of Mubami men, women, and children. A couple of the men identified themselves as members of the translation committee at Ugu village. We had some difficulty getting word to the folks at Ugu that we were coming, so I was very glad to see that they had received the message and been able to come. I’ve been reading, studying, and asking about the Mubami for three years now, so it was surreal to get to finally meet some of the people I had been hearing about.
Finally, we made our way to Kamusi Rural Church (aka, ‘Saloma Local Church,’ named after the creek that runs through that area), a Mubami speaking ECPNG (Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea, the dominant denomination in Western Province) congregation in Kamusi. A crowd had gathered around us, curious to know why the waitskins were here (waitskin is not intended as a derogatory term—it just means ‘people with white skin’). The church leaders set a time for later that evening to convene for us to tell everyone why we had come. That night, about 80-100 people came into the church and some of the denominational leaders were present as well. It quickly became clear that, despite our best efforts, no one except a handful of people knew we would be coming, and no one seemed to know why we had come. We told them that a few years ago, our organization had done a survey in the Mubami area to figure out if they still needed their own translation. Some of them nodded, remembering when our colleagues had come back in 2014. “We read their report about your desire for Scripture in Mubami, and we are here to prayerfully consider whether God wants us to come and help you translate the Bible into Mubami,” I said in Tok Pisin. I wasn’t sure how many of the people would understand me, but a handful of the men and a couple women clearly understood and translated my statement into Mubami for the rest of the people. Faces lit up and people chatted excitedly. The elders hushed everyone so we could continue. We explained that there are many languages in PNG that are still waiting for the Bible and that we weren’t sure if God wanted us to go to the Mubami or if he had another place for us to go.
Even as I explained that we had not yet made up our minds, it was hard for me to not just say, “We’re here to help you translate the Bible!” How do you face people who have been begging for God’s Word for decades and tell them, “I’m not sure if God wants me to help you get his Word or not”? Experience has taught me that a need, by itself, does not constitute a calling, but still, I struggled to get those words out and maintain my prior commitment to cautiously pray and carefully consider my decision.
There were some legitimate concerns and questions that I had before I could definitively say “Yes.” Probably the biggest concern was motives—why did they want a translator to come help them? That may seem like a silly question, but there are many examples of people groups in PNG who have had ulterior motives for wanting a missionary, chief among these ulterior motives being cargo cults (PNG’s version of the prosperity gospel). It’s a widespread belief in many areas of PNG that waitskins are deceased ancestors of theirs, come to bring them material goods (a.k.a., “cargo”). Thus, white missionaries are usually well received and welcomed, but oftentimes their reception has ulterior motives underlying their seemingly enthusiastic embrace of the gospel. (This is one reason that Bible translation takes so long—it takes years to learn the language and culture well enough to avoid the numerous potential pitfalls in translation of Scripture!)
So I asked them, “Why do you want the Bible in Mubami?” Max Saiya, the pastor at Saloma Local Church, and Rex Amadi, the chairman of the Mubami District ECPNG, both passionately explained, “Our people are not well educated. We are bush people. I and few of the other men known Tok Pisin and a little English, but our wives and children don’t understand these languages. When we preach, we have to read Scripture in English, Tok Pisin, or Gogodala and our people don’t understand the Bible in these languages. We need the Bible in Mubami so that our people can understand God’s Word.”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “That’s as pure a motive as I’ve ever heard.”
That night, they brought us rice and canned tuna in brine for dinner—a special (and expensive) treat that they themselves don’t often eat. To us, of course, it’s one of the blandest meals imaginable. Hardly what you’d hope for after a long, hot day. But the kind gesture was not lost on us. We stayed up talking with the people until probably 9 or 10 that night. But, it had been a long day and we were ready for sleep. Someone brought us a bucket full of tank water for bathing (a precious commodity—their only source of clean drinking water) and the pastor let us use a corner in one of the two rooms in the back of the church for our bucket baths. So, we took turns taking bucket baths in the pastor’s office. The floors were simple wooden slats, so the water drained right through to the ground. I chuckled to myself as I imagined this scenario playing out with various friends and relatives back home and the looks on their faces as they asked incredulously, “You want me to take a shower where?” It was not my first bucket shower, thanks to POC, but it was the first time I’ve taken a bucket bath in the pastor’s office!
After our bucket baths, we settled in to sleep. Phil took the opposite side of the room we had taken our baths in and Jennifer and I took the other room. By the time we set up our mosquito nets and air mattresses, I was drenched in sweat again. I often wonder during village living if there’s even a point to bathing, but at least it provides some relief from the heat, however temporary.
As I lay there drenched in sweat, I was comforted by two thoughts. First, I was very glad I had thought to get these little USB powered fans and battery packs! They’re not much in terms of cooling power, but it’s better than nothing! The second thought was that whatever suffering I was enduring was nothing compared to the spiritual suffering that comes by not having God’s Word in your heart language. For the Mubami “The Greatest Story Ever Told” has not yet been told—not fully. It’s still locked behind a closed door of a foreign language. Hearing statistics and stories about people without Scripture is moving, but to hear the passionate plea for myself was heart breaking. It’s miserably hot here, and it seems like we’ve flown to the edge of the earth and jumped off. But how can I say “no” to such a request? I’ve traded my American Dream for God’s Dream, the dream of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-11) That is a trade I will never regret making. What a privilege it would be to play a part in bringing God’s Word to these people.
MTT–Mother Tongue Translators; our national partners who do the work of Bible translation
Expat–short for “expatriate,” a foreigner (like us)
Bush–an Australian and PNG term for deep jungle and undeveloped areas
Waitskin–literally, “white skin;” a non-derogatory Tok Pisin term for people with white skin, often used to describe foreigners in general.
Tok Pisin–a Pidgin/Creole of English, widely spoken throughout much of PNG. Literally, “Pidgin talk” or, alternatively, “Talk of the Birds.”
Cargo Cult–PNG’s version of the “prosperity gospel;” It takes many shapes and forms, but at its core is an attempt to manipulate Christianity in order to obtain “cargo”–stuff.
Tank water–Rainwater collected from the gutters into large water tanks. For most people, it’s the only source of clean drinking water. Once it runs out, life gets difficult…