Flashback: Papua New Guinea, South Pacific, August 1997
“What if he steals her soul? Maybe we should warn her.”
“We're not supposed to talk about those things around her. You know how her people react to the spirit world. They either don't believe us or they get us in trouble with the authorities.”
“I don't think she's that way. She heard us talking about the Pandanas secret language the other day and didn't seem surprised at all. I didn't know she could understand Kumboi well enough to know what we were saying. But she did. She asked me if Pandanas was like Kumboi or if it was entirely different. When I told her that the women are not allowed to know Pandanas all she said was, “Okay, we better not get in trouble then. I won't ask anymore.”
“She was respectful.” Approving murmurs came from several of the women and girls in the circle.
“Do you think she can understand us now?” The Kumboi women of Papua New Guinea cast nervous glances at me. We were all working on string bags, sitting in the afternoon sun while it lasted.
“Ai Yande, do you know what we are saying?” Mama Waina asked me in Kumboi. I looked up and smiled at them all.
“A little. I understand that there is something I should not know, and it's okay. I don't mind if you can't tell me. I know that your culture has secrets that are dangerous for me to know.”
The younger girls gasped and giggled, hitting each other with open palms in a manner that expressed surprise and excitement. The older women hissed at them and clucked in the back of their throats to tell the girls to be somber and quiet. No one responded at all for a moment, unsure of what language to speak in, knowing now that I understood more than they realized.
Finally my closest friend and language helper spoke in halting English. She alone had left the village and gone to a school where she had learned to read and write and speak English. She glared at the rest of the group, daring them to stop her now.
“Sister, there is a Koi Yimp that is coming to visit you. You should not let him in your house.”
I nodded soberly and asked her.
“A Koi Yimp? Do you mean a sorcerer?”
Mama Waina spoke swiftly and with exaggerated hand motions that sent her bilam work flying. Her daughter Ana caught the string bag before it hit the dirt. I could rarely understand Mama Waina. She had come from a different village and the phonetics of her dialect were different.
“Mama Waina says that he wants to steal your soul. He will take it to give himself more power, and will leave, in your place, an evil spirit. You must not let him into your house!”
Rosinda spoke hesitantly, trying to make her words sound more acceptable to me, but not knowing how. I nodded my head in agreement and thanks toward Mama Waina and all the women who were looking at me earnestly. The cat was out of the bag and their sole interest now was in convincing me to take them seriously.
“Okay. I won't let him inside. Is he a cannibal?”
“It is the same,” Rosinda said.
She meant that a sorcerer is also, by implication, a cannibal. I had heard a conversation once before that implied sorcerers gained their power from cannibalism. The belief was similar to some European vampire stories. The idea behind being a sorcerer was that you must eat others to take their life-source and thereby become more powerful. I was unsure if they were warning me that this sorcerer planned to take my life, or just my spirit. I guessed that it would be just my spirit since the death of an American woman would bring Papua New Guinea authorities pouring into that area to investigate.
“I won't let him in,” I assured them. “But let me tell you what I believe, okay?”
They all nodded in unison, looking at me with a focus and intensity that I rarely encountered.
“The Spirit of God, the Creator, made all the other spirits. He also made man. There is none more powerful than the Creator God. I believe that if I obey him and live in his ways, then his Spirit is with me, and because of this no other spirit can steal my soul. My soul belongs to God. If I kept my own soul, then perhaps it could be taken. But if I commit my soul to God, then God keeps it. I will not invite this sorcerer into my house, but I want you to know that I am not afraid of him.”
The women spoke among themselves quickly and an argument ensued. I could not follow all that was said, but I knew that some of them agreed with me and some did not. Rosinda spoke again.
“Yes. It is true, what you say. But… please, be careful.”
Weeks passed and the Koi Yimp never came. My time in Papua New Guinea was almost at an end and I began to prepare to leave.
The people forgot about the threat of the sorcerer's visit and went back to gardening at further and further distances from the village. Then one day I went outside my primitive, split-cane house to get a bucket of water, and when I turned around a man was standing near my fire pit, staring at me. Strangers frequently came through to stare at me, most having never seen white skin before. I did not think of the Koi Yimp, assuming this man was probably just passing through and had stopped for a look.
I dipped my head toward him in greeting and stepped under the roof of my Komp Korup (cookhouse) to fill my tea pot with water. He squatted by the fire with me and waited in polite silence until I had made the tea and handed him a steaming cup. Then he began to speak.
I did not understand his words and realized he must not be from the dialect I was familiar with. His eyes were different than anyone I had seen before. They were a pale yellow-green and the pupils at times elongated like a cat's. He stared at me intensely, as though bidding me to look at him.
As he rambled on in his language I got the idea that he was telling me who he was and that he felt he was very important and wanted me to be impressed. I figured it was an introduction of sorts and waited politely for him to finish. When he was done I replied in the trade language, unsure if he would understand anything I was saying or not.
“I'm a daughter of this village,” I said. “But I'm originally from America, a village on the other side of the big water. You may not know this but I am also a daughter of the Most High God—the One who made everything.”
I gestured around me at the jungle and the mountains. A cloud had settled on the mountain top and we were covered with it now. I noticed for the first time that the village was completely silent. I wondered where everyone had gone. Even the dogs were missing. The man was silent, watching me. It struck me that we were managing to communicate after all.
“Who I am is not important,” I continued. “But you should know about the Existing One. All power and glory belongs to him. He created everything that you see; you, me, the jungle and the animals and every group of people. I love him and have given myself to him. He has given me his Spirit and is with me now, even as I speak to you.”
The man handed me his empty cup and made a short parting speech. Then he stood up and walked away into the jungle.
A few hours later found me inside of my house, playing the guitar and singing as the sun set over the western mountain range. I heard a cough outside and knew I had company. No one ever knocked. I opened the door to see Rosinda staring at me nervously.
“Hi, Rosinda! Come in. Where has everybody been today?” She did not speak but came inside and sat down across the room from me. Usually my friends would sit as close to me as possible, showing their friendship.
“Ai Yande,” (my sister) she said, staring into my eyes. “Are you there?”
“I'm here.” I said. “I've been here all day. Where have you been?”
“The Koi Yimp came,” she said. “He came here. He spoke to you. Did he take your soul?”
“No,” I said. “I didn't know that was the Koi Yimp. He didn't stay long. He drank tea and then left. But he didn't take my soul. I'm still here.”
Rosinda breathed a huge sigh of relief and came across the room to sit next to me.
“He said there was light shining out of your eyes,” she said. “His people told us that he came back to his village and said to them that the power in you is greater than the power in him and that he could not take your soul.”
I laughed aloud and hugged Rosinda who trembled in relief.
A torrent of cultural information began to pour out that day. The people were eager to tell me everything they feared and believed and to get my response. They knew now that I would not disbelieve them or bring trouble to them. They wanted to know the things that I knew and see if the “power” that was in me would work for them too.
“When twins are born we kill one so that the spirit will be united in one body. Otherwise an evil spirit will take the body of one of them and we won't know which one is evil until it is too late. What do you say about this, Ai Yande?”
“When someone dies, his relatives must paint their bodies with white clay to look like they have also died so that the spirit of the dead won't take them as well. What do you say about this, Ai Yande?”
“Daun is dying. He hired a sorcerer to find out why. The sorcerer told him that his enemies had cursed him and that there is a mushroom growing inside of him now that will kill him. He paid a lot of money to the sorcerer to cure him. The sorcerer sent mice inside of his throat and the mice ate the mushroom that was killing him. What do you say about this, Ai Yande? Will the man live or die?”
I tried to answer their questions with Bible stories. It was history. What has happened will happen. When I told the stories the women and children gathered to hear them. The male children then went to tell the men who traditionally did not listen to women. Once an errand boy came to get clarification on one point. Frustration grew in the men; they wanted more.
A great curiosity arose to know what else was in the Bible. What were the stories in the Old Testament? The few stories they'd heard had shed light on their own present circumstances. The people asked me to write home for a man to come and tell them the rest of the Bible stories. It was appropriate in their culture for a man to speak to everyone; it was not appropriate for a woman.
I was not offended at their request and agreed that such was the need. I hiked out to the nearest airstrip, caught a plane to the coast, and there I emailed home their official request for a Bible teacher. A family responded. The man who came was a hard-core Alaskan cowboy and a natural story teller. The Kumboi people loved him and his family.
Immersion into the Kumboi culture had been a choice I made. Just living there with them was not enough. I had to choose to let their culture manifest without reacting in fear or rejection. I did not take their culture as my own, I just observed it with respect toward the people. As the Kumboi asked for it, I told them what I thought. More often, I simply read or told a Bible story that dealt with the subject.
My willing immersion allowed me to observe a primitive culture in raw form; a privilege I still savor. According to their culture my work was done. I said goodbye to my friends on the mountain and moved on.
Here is the real challenge: To observe a “lesser” culture without taking on the aspects of that culture that have been formed in ignorance. For instance, I observed their experiences with the spirit world without ridicule, but did not make their fears my own.
Immersing yourself in a culture without being defiled by it is a far more common necessity than my uncommon example above. Moving gracefully through events like family reunions, college, and church socials can be as “culturally” difficult as tribal sorcery, in my experience. However, there may be a reason to put yourself through those alien moments in order to learn something that is of value to you or to connect with someone who is unable to bridge the gap himself.