Tonight, my sister’s family is boarding a plane that will lead them back to Wewak, Papua New Guinea. They have been doing their work there for eighteen years, and on this furlough, they were home longer than they have ever been – a year and a half – due to a new policy of needing full financial support before returning.
They are Wycliffe Bible Translators – trained in linguistics to use the blueprint of the Roman alphabet to produce a written language for a small village known as Pouye. This is one language of the 1,000 languages in PNG, out of the 6,000 languages in the world.
At the start, my sister and brother in-law learned to speak Pouye, then determined which letters are used in the language. After this map, they comprised the written language, taking into account cultural differences. Then they began the process of teaching the people to read and write, and of course, instilling them with their faith.
I could tell numerous stories about their time there, but I’ll never know what it’s really like to live the way they do. Each time they are preparing to go back, I keep hoping that they won’t go. And each time they come home, I watch patiently as they go through culture shock. It literally takes them a full year to reacclimate and catch up to all that they have missed.
Because my nieces are often so isolated, I didn’t really think that my oldest niece, Cynthia, would become a full-on teenager. But it’s happened – she’s fifteen and begging for a new phone every year. In that phase where she’s not fully present, rapt over social media, selfies, and games on her phone. Half young woman, half slightly awkward – but next time I see her, she’ll be eighteen, and that last half will probably be gone.
I was so amused, this time around, that the girls are at the age where they’re developing their own opinions. Mom and Dad are no longer the ultimate end-all be-all. They had journals of secrets and a complex magic club. Cynthia told us, “There are more pros than cons to the witch doctors where we live.” Being a super herbalist healer myself – due to years of no medical insurance – I had to agree. Though you wouldn’t want to be the unfortunate tourist who purchased the wrong kind of wooden statue – the one with a hex on it to keep the tourists out. The only way to reverse the hex, she told us, is by burning the token.
I’m trying to hold it together as I think about all of the memories I have with my nieces. All the times they spent the night and we ate ice cream and pizza, made paintings with watercolor and gouache, went to the museum where Cynthia pointed out the blonde voodoo doll that looks just like Leah, shopped at my herbal store where we bought pestles and mortars, toured a historic boat that functions as a hotel, went to the zoo, or the park. There is so much more I wish we could have done.
Since Cynthia is in high school, when they get back she’ll be going to a boarding school at a mission base on the other side of PNG. It makes me feel a little uneasy that she’ll be so far away from her family. Being the youngest sister myself, I relate a great deal to Leah. She often feels like the underdog, though she is talented and witty with an incredible imagination. My older sister left home when I was twelve, and now Cynthia is leaving when Leah is almost twelve as well. I keep seeing history repeat itself.
Being apart, they will change a great deal. Leah will come into her own and feel less overshadowed, but she’ll also feel lonely without her sister. Cynthia will become more independent, focused on making her own decisions, forming her own thoughts through her love of writing and art.
If this is the last term for my sister and brother-in-law, I also wonder what the next phase of their lives will be. What will they do? Will they teach? My sister has shown that she can acclimate, and has been working as an assistant Spanish teacher. But my brother-in-law seems more uncertain of his place outside of missionary life. He is known there as a leader, but here, he hasn’t had the opportunity to establish himself in that way. It seems important that he find his footing here in the states, eventually.
All four of them have kept moving so constantly that gypsy life is ingrained in them. They all fear the idea of staying in one place for more than a year. In that constant movement, there is little chance for a complete life to take root. I only say this, because for a long time, I lived that way as well. It’s the “Hello, Goodbye” lifestyle. We’re never able to completely work out our issues because there is never enough time together.
I get nervous being one on one with my sister. I attempted to have lunch with her once – the second time we were alone together since she got married. Her silence makes me want to fill the air with words. I wonder if she expects me to ask her questions, but I don’t know what questions to ask, and I prefer that she fill in the blanks without my prodding. She told me that I talked too much. I am an open book, and she is a closed one – she knows me so much better than I will ever know her. I have no idea how to solve her mystery.
There are many things we never say. We never bring up the fact that I didn’t become the Super-Christian that she so wanted me to be (including the time that she tried to send me to a rehab camp in Texas for straying Christians). They’ve read some of my writing, but no one ever brings it up. And we never discuss that I have mixed feelings about what they do for a living.
In Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, the course of our evolutionary development is traced through the conquest and spread of civilization. His book offers a total education in how human society functions through the game of winners and losers. At one point he asks, “Why was proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) a driving force for colonization and conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not among Chinese (Diamond, 419)?”
As countries, empires, languages, and people groups have come and gone, China has remained Chinese, with an unchanging language and power structure for longer than almost anywhere. It is an insular large land mass, and though as a culture they have made leaps and bounds in technology and invention, an absolute leader has always stalled the process, causing a sort of catch-up game hundreds of years later.
In Europe, however, there are many small countries with open communication. If one leader is not buying a concept, another one will. If the concept is successful, the other leaders have to adopt it or risk getting swallowed up by the more successful country. This model pertains not only to countries but to corporations, organizations, governments, and religion.
Christianity is a conquest religion. First come the missionaries, then comes the government. The big businesses are drawn by untapped resources and cheap labor, which leads to total cultural take-over.
In the past eighteen years, a lot has changed in Papua New Guinea. Its resources have encouraged development – and if you want to rent a home there, $4,000 a month is on the low-end. I wouldn’t be surprised if land gets bought up right from under the feet of the natives. It’s the same old story.
In the 1970’s, the highlanders had been farming with stone tools for thousands of years while those in the swamp areas existed on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Before humans ever arrived, large mammals existed there, but since then, there has been so little protein, that cannibalism existed until modern Australians threatened the human-eaters with guns. Society there developed in utter isolation from the original Asian population that first founded it (certain people groups that looked much different back then than they do today).
“… difficulties of terrain, combined with the state of intermittent warfare that characterized relations between New Guinea bands or villages, account for traditional New Guinea’s linguistic, cultural, and political fragmentation (Diamond, 306).”
This fragmentation and geographic isolation kept New Guinea from developing as a civilization, though until three thousand years ago, it was actually more advanced than Australia, the islands of Bismarck, and the Solomon Archipelagoes.
To most Papua New Guineans, technology is “white man’s magic.” Western medicine and an encouragement to decrease warfare has improved the population. Is it patronizing to ask that a culture remain untouched so that we can enjoy the Stone Age from afar? Is it patronizing to take over? Rather than answers, there is the inevitable progression of globalization.
Quickly, the old traditions disappear, replaced with our customs, our food, our business, our religions. The first thing they are given to read is the Bible. Not their own stories, but the stories of a once tiny tribal religion that began in the Fertile Crescent – a place so raped of its natural resources that it is now only a dessert.
Within my family, there are eight different people with differing life experiences, belief systems, and lifestyles among three different generations. Maybe all of that difference keeps us balanced. When we come together, it can be a challenge. There is always an awkward moment, or the thing that someone says that makes me angry. In a sense, we understand more fully who we are when confronted with the opposite point of view. It seems to work for us – the small groups with mostly open communication that create innovation – kind of like Europe, or Microsoft, or Capitalism. In all of that difference, we find success.