We have wrestled with the best way to adequately explain our three-week experience in Zumanggurun. It’s impossible to describe the many facets of life there, so we will be breaking it down into three topical posts: people, practice, and perspective.
Our previous studies of Papua New Guinean culture showed that relationships hold supreme value in society. In the States we tend to be highly independent and time- and task-oriented, while Papua New Guineans are generally very interdependent and event- and connection-oriented. Here, the welfare of the community is much more important than the welfare of the individual. From the moment of our arrival, our wasfamili (host family) consistently indicated their willingness to build relationships with us. Our presence there as honoured guests brought a certain amount of status in the community, so it was important to them to take care of us, even at the cost of their normal routine. Waspapa and Wasmama, who have numerous children and grandchildren under their care, had cleared their belongings out of their house so that we could stay there during our visit. Waspapa even slept outside near the house to provide nighttime security for us.
Conversation was an obvious way to build relationship and to develop our language skills. The use of Tok Pisin, the trade language we had just spent several weeks studying in POC, is very strong in this village, so we fairly easily engaged in conversation in most circumstances. A large portion of Rebekah’s relationship-building conversation took place while completing daily household tasks at the nearby stream, where women would go to wash dishes, clothes, and children. For Aaron, the focal point was the mango tree, under whose shade the older men would gather to exchange stories or discuss community issues. The kids’ interactions were scattered all over the village; the older kids would play games with groups of children on the outskirts of our little area, and the little guys were usually being held or carried wherever they wanted to explore. If Evie wasn’t playing, she was learning how to make a bilum (string bag) or to prepare local food, or she was entertaining young children. Abel and his friends were frequently playing with marbles or rubber bands or playing a jumping game called Jingle Jungle. Judah devoted a large amount of his time to building relationships with the village puppies and kittens, and he also enjoyed swinging with other kids on strap swings under the house.
These were some of the most giving people we have ever been around. When word got out after a couple of days that our kids liked sweet bananas (as opposed to the starchy ones, ‘cooking bananas,’ that are a staple in the area), every couple of days a new bunch of mau (sweet) bananas would show up in our haus kuk (outdoor kitchen). Same for kulau (green coconut, or the water from it), which we loved to drink as an afternoon refresher. A friend that lived on top of a nearby mountain brought ripe pineapples down to us a couple times, straight from his garden. People were always willing to stop what they were doing and talk with us, to help with our little language projects, and otherwise give of their time. Wasmama regularly grabbed all our pots and dishes after dinner and had them washed and back in the haus kuk before we finished putting the kids to bed, and she almost always got up before dawn to start a fire and put a kettle on to boil for our coffee and oatmeal. In our last 24 hours in the village, we were absolutely showered with gifts; people brought bilums they had made for us, clothing, jewelry, handmade crafts, and more coconuts and bananas. We were repeatedly told in training, “You can’t outgive a Papua New Guinean,” and in Zumanggurun we found this to be quite true.
I had the opportunity, in working through some of my language-related assignments, to get an overall sense of the tok ples (vernacular language) of this area and the ways it is used. It is a beautiful language with a rich vocabulary and interesting grammatical structures. In Zumanggurun, only one of many Adzera-speaking villages, tok ples is only being used by people my age and older; it is not being taught to or used by children at all. Because of high rates of intermarriage (people from other language groups marrying into this one and people marrying into other language groups) as well as their proximity to a busy highway (and therefore, trade with people from all over), Tok Pisin is much more widely used in everyday life. Many tok ples speakers recognize this trend and are burdened for the survival of their language and the cultural knowledge associated with it. They have a vernacular New Testament, published in 1976, but both for the intermarriage issue and other difficulties, it goes virtually unused in this village. This really discouraged me for a few days, knowing something about how much work and prayer must have gone into producing that translation and considering that this was what I’ve given my life to contribute to. When I consider that Tok Pisin is the functional mother tongue of the next generation, my mind is more at ease watching worship and discipleship take place in that instead of tok ples. It was difficult to watch, and certainly not what I was expecting, but it was a great lesson and picture of how language shift works in a developing country.
One of the most beautiful displays of love I have ever seen took place when Waspapa‘s mother, the matriarch of the area, became very ill. We watched her daughters take turns sitting on the ground, holding her and rocking her when she was in pain. They washed her hair each day and fed her when she was able. Her grandchildren would join together to carry her to a place in the sun (during the day) or close to a fire (at night) so she could stay warm. Many times she cried out for a child who wasn’t present or for her own (long deceased) mother, but there were always people by her side to comfort her. After several days, word traveled out that she was sick, and family members from all over the region arrived to gather together. They prayed over her, talked with her, and helped share each others’ burdens. Every detail of her care was at the forefront of the minds of her family. One memory I will never forget is the image of 20 or 30 family members gathered under the house where she was staying, and Waspapa weeping and praying over her in tok ples. We could think of numerous ‘modern’ conveniences that could have made her more comfortable, but the love and concern of her family more than made up for it.
The connection the Lord forged between us and our wasfamili is one that we will treasure for a long time to come. We don’t know what area we’ll end up in, but we know we will always have family in the Markham Valley.