Monday, November 28, 2011

Village Vignettes 6: The village pastor

We were privileged to live with a pastor’s family during our village stay. We also got to know a few other pastors in the village. Talking and living with these men gave us a glimpse into what it is like to be a pastor in a village. It makes for some interesting comparisons with what we’re used to.

A typical pastor in Canada or Australia goes to school for a long time before he begins his work. Three or four years of university, followed by four years of seminary (a rigorous academic program plus a number of practical internships) provide a lot of knowledge and tools for the ministry. It is often very different for a village pastor. Going to school is very expensive without sponsorship – not just because of tuition fees, but also because it usually means leaving one’s village and moving into a cash economy without a good source of income. A fairly typical route to becoming a pastor is: being a song leader in church, then becoming a lay preacher, and finally becoming an ordained minister. Some, however, do go to Bible College and get some more training.

A Canadian/Australian pastor typically has many resources at his disposal: row upon row of bookshelves lined with books, plus many more resources in computer software like Logos, and access to countless more resources online, not to mention easy phone or email access to experts on particular issues that may come up. A village pastor in PNG has very little compared to this. He may have a metre or two worth of books on his shelf – some Bible College textbooks perhaps, and a few hand-me-downs from missionaries. With this, he has to make all his sermons. It’s not impossible, but it requires a lot of prayer and careful study of Scripture.

In Canada or Australia, it’s typically a full-time job (and a half!) to be a minister. Preparing a sermon or two every week, teaching classes, making visits in the congregation, leading meetings, and the list goes on – the schedule gets full very quickly. But he does receive a stipend, and the congregation looks out for his material needs. But in the village, on top of all these pastoral duties, the pastor is also expected to earn his own income – which, in a non-cash economy, means having a garden and growing some crops that can be sold. That’s not to say that churches don’t provide for their pastors at all; they do – both financially and in kind – but not enough to live off. To be fair, the churches here are typically a lot smaller too (e.g. our village church had about 30 people), which does reduce the pastor’s workload.

I often wondered how pastors in the village manage to take care of their everyday business and still have time to write sermons and work in the congregation. The answer is that a lot of that work happens at night – come home from the garden after dark, spend several hours studying the Bible, wake up early in the morning, keep on studying, lead family devotions, and go to work outside again. 

Village Vignettes 5: The economy

Today, a very quick look at what the village economy is like (from someone who knows very little about economics in general). The economy traditionally has not been based on cash; just about anything you really need can be found in the jungle or grown on the land. Food is grown in gardens (and in the wild); meat can be found in the jungle (e.g. bandicoots and crayfish) or raised around the house (chickens and pigs). There are plenty of building materials in the jungle. Many plants have very useful medical properties to keep you healthy. Land itself is passed on from father to son. Even today, if you live in a village and have no money at all, you’ll survive.

Cities and towns are different. If you don’t have access to the jungle or a garden, you have to buy all your food, rent a house to stay in, pay utility bills, and so on. If you live in town, you might have a job with a decent paycheque, but the cost of living is much higher too. I’ve met a few people already who were educated and had a decent job in town, but went back to village life because they were better off there, even with a significantly lower cash income.

In villages, there is more and more of a cash economy, because there is an increasing number of things that need money to get. People need money to buy certain products, e.g. machetes and mobile phone top-ups. Parents often have a hard time scraping together enough money to pay for their children’s education (there are school fees all the way through elementary school and high school, and although the government is promising free education next year, we’ll have to wait and see what actually happens). At those times of the year when there is less garden produce available, it is nice to have some store-bought food (e.g. rice). Then there are always extras that can be either just a nice treat, or something that can bring in money (e.g. someone might buy a generator and charge people a small fee to charge their cell phones on it).

Sources of income
There are many ways to earn money in the village. I’ve mentioned selling use of a generator. Most villages have at least one family that runs a store, selling basic things like rice, noodles, sugar, and tin meat. Many women bring garden produce to market. Others sell baked goods there (we taught our family how to make cinnamon rolls, and they figure they can make a lot of money selling those because no one else knows how).

The land also produces a lot that can be sold. Our host family was quite busy harvesting cacao. This grows in pods on trees:

The pods are harvested and opened up. Inside are cacao beans, which are then dried:

At this point, the bean itself is quite edible (after peeling off the skin); it tastes like very dark and very bitter chocolate. The dried beans are sold, then ground into cocoa powder, and eventually they’ll find their way into chocolate.

Besides cacao, other sources of income include coffee, copra (coconut oil), and forestry. For many of these things, the people in the village are at the mercy of world market prices. The price of cacao, for example, is about half of what it used to be, and the price of coffee is so low that our host family doesn’t even bother picking theirs, but lets it rot on the trees. Because prices do fluctuate (and there is no insurance and no government bailouts for this sort of thing), people with a bit of foresight will grow several different kinds of crops, so that there is always something with which they can earn a bit of an income.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Village Vignettes 4: Daily Life

It took us a while to settle into some kind of routine, but once we did it looked something like this. We’d wake up to the sound of someone chopping firewood. After a leisurely breakfast, I would make the short but slippery trek down the mountainside to the nearest stream (carrying a bilum [string bag] on my back and two buckets in my hands) to wash dishes, do laundry, and bathe. Most women could navigate the slope carrying twice as much in their bilum and with a baby too yet, but I never attempted it with Avigail. (It was risky enough with borrowed dishes!) I always took my mobile phone in the likely event that one day I would finally careen headlong down the mountain, and then what? I wasn’t the only one to have such concerns, apparently, because often, soon after I’d leave, someone else would make a point of coming after me just to be sure I’d made it down in one piece. But I often had at least the first few minutes by the water to myself, and it afforded me the small measure of daily solitude I needed to preserve my sanity. And often I was thankful for the company since it usually resulted in help with all that washing and gave me opportunities to practice speaking Tok Pisin.

This is the house we lived in.

Washing laundry in the stream

Meanwhile, back at the ranch—I mean, house—Tim would be babysitting. Often he succeeded in getting Avigail to nap in the bilum. (Our host papa gave him a crash course on how to properly put a baby in a bilum…it was highly amusing!) This gave him time to do other helpful things like make yogurt or bake bread.
Our fireplace was conveniently located on a platform outside the kitchen window.

Soon it would be time for lunch, followed by a nap or time to read. We also had several assignments to do during our time there, including making a map of the village, a kinship chart, word lists, cultural observations, and translating a story. This kept us from being bored even when no one came to visit us. But there were also times when we would have preferred to be actually engaged in real-life encounters rather than just sitting around writing about them.

Snack time!

At some point in the afternoon Tim would leave to haul more drinking water and bathe. He had a significantly longer hike than I did, but no less steep. He would seek out opportunities to visit with someone on his way back. People often gave him gifts of fresh garden produce, which we really appreciated. In return, he’d later share a little packet of some valued commodity like sugar or salt. In this way, relationships started to form.

Once Tim got back, there would be a mad rush to bathe Avigail and get supper ready before dark. Although at first I was hesitant to let random people hold Avigail, I really came to appreciate certain girls who whisked Avigail away to play with her so I could focus on getting the fire to cooperate to hopefully turn out something edible for supper. We’d eat in the dark and then it would be Avigail’s bedtime. But despite all my intentions to stay up and “story” with all the adults, I often fell asleep shortly after my baby, I was so exhausted! So, it’s no wonder Tim’s language skills developed at a greater pace than mine; I slept through all kinds of wonderful opportunities to practice.

Avigail hanging out with her new sisters.
So, that’s a glimpse of a typical day in the village for us. Keep in mind, though, that this was by no means a typical day for the villagers. They worked much harder than we did with gardens to tend, more mouths to feed, and more clothes to wash! Our admiration of their strength and stamina only grew during our time there.

Village Vignettes 3: Water

Water is something we so easily take for granted. Living in southern Ontario, with the Great Lakes all around, getting good fresh water is usually not a problem. Sure, there are scares sometimes, like the PCBs that got into the Smithville water supply in the 1980s, worries about lead pipes in old buildings, and the Walkerton crisis of a few years ago. But those are the exception rather than the rule. Water generally comes out of the tap, ready to drink, and we don’t think much of how it got there.

When you live in a village, though, water doesn’t come so easily. It certainly doesn’t come out of a tap in the kitchen in seemingly unlimited quantities.

When you want drinking water, you usually have to hike to get it. And as sure as the law of gravity, that hike is going to involve a steep slope (often muddy and very slippery) to get you down to the water. Our water source was a spring about 700 metres away from our house. As is quite typical with a spring, someone put a pipe into the spring to bring the water to a somewhat more convenient location (not quite as convenient as everyone’s house, unfortunately).

Our water source – the water comes out of the ground between
the roots of that big tree in the top-centre of the picture.
Notice the nice muddy path at right.

Filling water containers.

Every family has a collection of used pop bottles that become the family water transport system. It is traditionally the task of women to get water, and it is unbelievable to see how much water they carry up those steep muddy paths and back home. It’s not uncommon to see a woman carrying 20 L worth of water in water bottles in a string bag on her back (hanging from her forehead), and balancing another 15 L in pots stacked on top of each other on top of her head.

Families that are committed Christians don’t follow all the old traditions anymore. They realize that it’s good if a man helps his wife out with the household chores, especially if he would otherwise just be sitting around doing nothing anyway. We were blessed to be living with a pastor’s family. Quite often, some of the family members (including the male members!) would go out to the spring and get some for us – in addition to water for their own family.

I would also fill up a few bottles at the spring every day when I went to shower there. This was a lot of fun, actually, because a few children would always follow me. They would carry some of my water for me, and I would tell them stories that I had heard as a kid; sometimes they would ask me to tell the same story two or three times on the walk back home. The Three Little Pigs and Rikki Tikki Tembo quickly became their favourites.

The cleanness of drinking water is always an issue to be aware of. Many people have to boil their drinking water, or purify it in some other way. Thankfully, since we got our water from a spring, we didn’t have to worry about that; we could drink it straight from the source. And since firewood is also a commodity not to be taken for granted, it was nice not to have to “waste” firewood just on boiling water.

Water tank
The days of walking down that steep muddy path may soon be over. Our village has received a great big water tank, installed by an NGO that has been quite active with various projects in the village. The tank is supposed to receive water from a pump down the mountain; however, the pump they put in isn’t powerful enough to bring the water up to the tank. They are working on it, and hope to have things fixed up by next year.

One of the guys took me down the mountain to see the source for this tank. Water is taken from a stream (or spring, I’m not sure) and is piped into this holding tank:

The pipe on the left of that tank goes on to the pump:

 This is a ram pump, which requires no electricity at all, and is therefore very practical for the village setting. Water comes into the pump through the 100 mm pipe at the top right. This volume of water provides enough force to operate the diaphragm of the pump. Of course, that cannot provide enough power to pump a 100 mm pipe’s worth of water, but it does give enough force to push water through a smaller pipe. The 40 mm pipe that comes out on the left side of the pump heads up the mountain, and hopefully, with a bit of help from a windmill or another pump, will bring water all the way up to Waliyaksor sometime in 2012.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Village Vignettes 2: Drums

Some of the most memorable events of our village stay involved drums. Three types of drums stood out: the kundu, the mambuben, and the garamut. Each is very different.

The kundu is probably the most well-known kind of drum in PNG. It is a handheld drum, about 2-3 feet long, hollowed out of wood in an hourglass shape. Lizard or snake skin is stretched over the top to form the beating surface.  Kundus are often used at singsings (traditional dances).
Kundus are part of this singsing, held by the men dancing in the circle.

The mambuben is a bamboo drum. Three layers of three bamboo pipes of different lengths are put together. It almost looks like a miniature pipe organ on its side. The drummer sits on top and uses the soles of flip-flops as drum sticks. A guitar accompanies. Some of the young men in our village were practicing for an upcoming competition, right next door to us. If they weren’t playing one particular night, we could be sure that people in the next village (1 km away) were – so on many nights, we fell asleep to the music of the mambuben. I had a chance to try it too, and quite enjoyed it.  

Playing the mambuben.


The garamut was the one drum type that featured the most prominently in our time in Waliyaksor. This is a big drum carved out of the trunk of an ironwood tree. It makes a wonderful deep sound that carries very well through the jungle, and for this reason, the garamut was traditionally used to send messages from village to village. Each person has a beat that signifies his name; other beats can indicate someone has died, or war is breaking out, or “your wife wants you to come home.” With mobile phone coverage throughout most of PNG nowadays, the garamut has become more or less obsolete from a practical point of view, and most younger and middle-aged people don’t really know how to use them anymore. However, they are still being made, and communities do value them for their cultural significance.

Beating a garamut.
While we were living in Waliyaksor, the men of the village (both old and young) were working on carving four garamut out of one great big ironwood tree that had fallen down. This was the first time in about 16 years that any garamut had been made in the village, so this made for quite some excitement. It used to take weeks to make just one garamut; however, with modern tools (and not even power tools), they were able to carve out four in just one week.

Chiselling out the garamut.

On our last full day in the village, it was time to bring the garamut up from the jungle into the village (about 700 metres away). Men came from several surrounding villages to help out. As we walked down the steep hill to the garamut workshop, we wondered how it would be possible to bring them all the way up. Ironwood, after all, isn’t named ironwood for no reason: each garamut probably weighs a few hundred kilograms. 

Someone had prepared a great big vine (about 5 cm in diameter); one end of it was tied to a garamut, while the loose end was laid out along the path. About fifty men grabbed hold of the vine, and one man at the front started singing and beating a kundu. At his direction, everyone pulled, and the garamut lurched forward a foot or two. Again, and again they pulled. I joined in. Eventually, the garamut came to a place that wasn’t quite so steep, and the team had enough momentum to just go and go without stopping. It’s pretty exciting to be part of a team pulling this really heavy object by muscle-power alone, shouting and cheering the whole way, knocking over small trees that dare to stand in the way of the garamut, and jumping around other small trees so we wouldn’t get squished between them and the vine. At the crest of the hill, there was a renewed effort to rush into the village, and rush we did. Then a few minutes to rest, and down to get the next garamut. Once they were all up, it was really time to rest. Coconuts were opened up and passed around – they make a very refreshing drink!


We really enjoyed being part of these cultural experiences, but at the same time, they leave us with many questions. Traditional religion in PNG is still very strong. Many people say they are Christians, and yet have no trouble calling on their ancestor spirits, or checking with bush spirits before starting something new. Several times I heard young children expressing their fear of sorcery (and explicitly denying the power of God). Knowing this, we were often somewhat cautious in how much we should actually get involved.

Take the garamut for example. There are all kinds of taboos associated with them. For example, women are not allowed to come to a place where garamut are being made, and are not allowed to sit on them when they have been completed. What really tipped me off that there might be something sinister about the garamut is that the night before the garamut are brought up to the village, all the village leaders traditionally come together and have an all-night singsing. Fair enough, I can imagine that people in the village would want to celebrate this big event (although I myself had no desire to stay up all night). However, when I asked some of the local Christian leaders about it, they weren’t too impressed – although it was still hard to figure out exactly what was wrong. I’m not entirely sure, but I get the impression that this overnight singsing had something to do with appeasing spirits and clearing the way for the garamut to come into the village.

Was it OK for us to get involved at all? Or were we exposing ourselves to attacks of the devil? Was our very presence a silent approval of some evil that was going on? Here again, I asked the local Christian leaders – men who are very committed to the faith and very concerned not to be syncretistic. One man told us he had mixed feelings: garamut are fine if they are used for communication (as described above), but they can also be used for evil as well in the spirit world. He himself was going to stay away from all the garamut ceremonies. But at the same time, he said it was fine for me, a foreigner, to go – I was just observing the culture and I don’t have those spirit-world associations.  In a sense, you could compare it to any modern medium today, such as TV or the Internet: these things in themselves are not bad, but they can also be used to promote horrible evils.

Despite these questions, we do thoroughly appreciate having had these experiences. They help us to understand more of the values of Papua New Guineans. Other missionaries have recommended that when we have questions about what’s just cultural and what’s not appropriate for Christians, we should ask committed local Christians who have more of an idea of the real significance behind everything. That sounds like good advice. We have lots to learn yet.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Village Vignettes 1: Grubs

We have been back from living in the village for almost a week now, so it’s about time we update you on what we’ve been up to. Rather than attempt to be comprehensive, we’ll try to give a few vignettes over the coming days.

We’ll start off with something that many of you may have heard something about already. One day, one of the young men in the village gave me some grubs. When he gave them to me, they were still alive and wiggling, and I was a little concerned that he expected me to eat them alive, on the spot. Thankfully that was not the case. These were breadfruit grubs, a bit bigger than the sago grubs you sometimes hear about. The ones I received were in two different stages of development. This is what they look like:

I must say that this wouldn’t be my first choice for a meal either, but I thought I should be brave and at least give some of these local delicacies a try. So I cooked them, and ate all four (Francine and Avigail each tried just a small bite). They don’t taste terrible; something between the taste of potato and crayfish.

Less than 15 minutes later, I was lying on the floor with a pounding headache, feeling lightheaded and having great difficulty breathing. Almost the worst part was that I knew exactly what was happening, because it had happened before, about nine years ago (after I had been stung by a bee). This was anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction. In 2002, the paramedics arrived within 10 minutes, jabbed me with an EpiPen, put me on oxygen, and brought me to the local hospital, and I felt then like they saved my life. I knew that was not an option here in the village. So I felt it was a very real possibility that I would die that night. It was scary, and yet I felt calm.

I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that. I passed in and out of consciousness a few times. The nurse from POC drove up from Madang. People were gathering around me, trying to help. The only thing I really remember is that people were praying. I don’t even remember that they were praying, I just had a sense that they were. And then when I came to, and realized I was actually going to make it, I felt like it was really only the hand of God that saved my life. Never before had I depended on God so fully for my very life. Never before had prayers seemed so effective.

I realized that living in Canada (or any other wealthy country with quality healthcare), we really depend a lot on healthcare professionals and medicine. When we’re in a health crisis, the first thing we usually think of is to go to the hospital or take some medication. And yes, God does give these blessings for us to make use of, but we so easily lose sight of the reality that it is God who gives life and takes it away, who heals or allows sickness to continue. When we see medication alone making us better, it’s harder to see God as the one who heals.

People living in isolated villages don’t have the luxury of good healthcare – it’s either too far away, or too expensive, or both. For many people in rural PNG, the first thing they think of when they are sick is prayer. They fully rely on God to heal them. They know that medication won’t heal them (because they don’t have any), so they turn to the only one who can.

We are grateful that God spared my life. We are grateful that he uses these opportunities also to teach us something about who he is and how fully we are to depend on him. We trust that God used this to his glory to show that he is more powerful. It’s quite likely, given an understanding of the beliefs of some of the people in the village, that some people attributed what happened to sanguma (sorcery) – but they could clearly see that our God is more powerful than sanguma.

The next day, our host family went through the village and told everyone not to give me anything unusual to eat. A few days later, I found out that even some of the locals are allergic to these grubs – some get some itchy skin, but I did also hear of one person who had a full-on anaphylaxis like I did.

Needless to say, I will never eat grubs again.