There we stood in the middle of the mountainous jungles of Papua New Guinea in front of a large make-shift wall made of banana leaves, twigs, and tropical flowers. A voice rang out from the other side of the wall in the trade language: “Hello new faces! Why have you come? What have you brought us that we should let you in?”
It had taken us over 8 hours to get to this banana-leaf-fortified village. Early that morning, a native missionary named Lucas led Matt, Jeremy, and me onto a crowded bus to go to “downtown” Madang (which consists of about 30 two-story concrete buildings with barred windows and metal roofs). From there we headed to the city docks to find a dinghy skipper willing to take us across the Madang bay to a beach called Saksak Basis. A skipper named Taylor agreed to take us. His dinghy was a twenty-foot, uncovered boat with a small engine attached to the back of it. The gas tank was just a large jerry-can sitting next to us on the floor. Despite its appearance, the dinghy did its job well and got us to Saksak Basis in just over three hours. Thankfully, we never had to use the oars!
After a wet landing at Saksak Basis (basically jumping into the surf and climbing onto the shore), we gathered our gear and started the hike up into the foothills of the Finisterre Mountains with three guides from the Nekgini language group. The climb into the mountains was steep and slippery with mud, but the only ones who seemed to have a problem were the three Americans. Our Nekginian guides were carrying our backpacks for us as well as coconuts for water breaks along the trail; however, we were the ones who were out of breath at our rest stops. Three and half hours later, we stood with Lucas and our new Nekginian friends in front of the banana leaf barrier. “Hello new faces! Why have you come? What have you brought us that we should let you in?”
My Melanesian Pidgin was good enough for me to know what they’d said, but in the moment, I was having trouble formulating an answer. I had not prepared myself for a scene like this. We all looked at Lucas. He replied on our behalf. “We are missionaries,” he said. “We have good news. We have a talk that belongs to God (“Tok bilong Got” is the Papua New Guinean equivalent of “God’s Word”). If you would like to know and hear this word, you can let us in. But if you do not like this word, we can go someplace else.” The answer came back immediately: “Yu ken kam.” And the banana leaf gate was quickly dismantled.
As we walked through the doorway in the wall, we were met by dozens of Nekginians. Most were wearing flower necklaces (something akin to the Hawaiian lei). They gave each of us a necklace and then an older lady slapped a red paste on each of our cheeks. They then led us into the rest of the village parade-style while they sang songs of welcome.
We spent the greater part of two days with the people of Nekgini. We introduced ourselves and shared about our hope of one day teaching and translating the Bible, but we spent the majority of our time listening to them and looking around their village. They have two small schools in Nekgini that are funded by the government. One is a primary school and one is a Tok Ples school that teaches anyone in the tribe how to read and write their own language, which has been dying out as more and more people use the trade language for communication. The main cash crop of Nekgini is the cocoa bean, which they sell to middle men, who take the cocoa bean to processing plants in Madang. All of the cocoa in Papua New Guinea is exported, so no one in Nekgini has ever tasted what they grow.
All Nekginians live on their own land, so one has to walk a lot along the steep hillsides to visit the different families. When the village wants everyone to gather together they use a tribal telephone called a Garamut. This is a massive, hollowed out tree trunk, which they beat with a large stick. The sound can be heard for miles, and the number of beats tells the listener what kind of meeting is being called and where the meeting is to take place.
But there are many things about Nekgini culture that we are too new to understand. Lucas, being a national from the Finisterre Mountains, was able to share with us some of the Nekgini worldview. They are awash in something called cargo cult, which is basically a mix between gnosticism and prosperity gospel. They believe missionaries carry with them a secret knowledge which allows people to gain great wealth (or cargo). The “churches” in Nekgini do not have the true gospel and do not have the Bible in their own language. Few even own Bibles in the trade language. Lucas shared that he knows of only one true believer in all of Nekgini.
And the reality is that there are dozens of places like Nekgini in the Finisterre Mountain range. Some will need Bible translations, but all need Christians to come and obey Jesus’ commission to make disciples. Pray to the Lord of the harvest that he might send more laborers into the harvest. And pray that God would give us wisdom as to where we should labor as we conduct more surveys in the weeks ahead.
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