Small Steps on a Slippery Slope

October 4th, 2009

The sounds of 14 sniffling teenage noses filled our thatched-roof house, perched on 10-foot foundation poles in Hauna Village, just off the banks of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

I was trying to translate the Bible into the language of the Sepik Iwam people, with the help of 14 boys who were my primary translators.

But the constant sniffling (everybody had a cold, including me) gave way to these Hauna boys venturing outside to blow their noses into the weeds by the side of the house. I was beyond distracted–and grossed out by all theslope (the Sepik Iwam word for snot). But I had the solution. I retrieved a stack of man-sized white handkerchiefs and proudly introduced them to the boys.

“What’s this for?” one asked.

“It’s too small to wear!” another one said.

Before I could answer, an explanation came from two of my young helpers who’d visited outside the village and witnessed people using handkerchiefs.

“We’ve seen men and women carry these white cloths. They blow their slope into it! Then they carefully fold it up and take it with them wherever they go. Women can fill up whole purses with slope!”

With looks of utter disgust, they wondered aloud, “Why?!”

One responded, “I guess white people like to keep it.” Another kid asked, “How do you do it?”

After a demonstration, they began practicing, holding out their offerings to their in-the-know peers: “Is this enough?”

Satisfied with their new skills, these boys brought me their folded presents. At that point I quickly decided that it was fine if they wanted to continue blowing their slope into the weeds.

This was one of many gaffes I managed during my early days of living among the Sepik Iwam people. But my mistakes were very revealing. Even after years of linguistic and anthropological training, it was still easy for me to fall into the trap of assuming my customs and culture were best for my new friends.

Hauna women loved the bras I brought to the village—they wore them around their waists as handy pockets.

I was sure that introducing bread would help me explain to villagers that “Jesus is the Bread of Life.” But after the first taste, they vomited.

Since I was there as an agent of change, I realized I needed to define my focus. I asked myself hard questions: How can I explain why I was living with them? How can the Bible be relevant to people from an isolated corner of the South Pacific? How can I learn their culture well enough to translate God’s Word into their language–in such a way that they embrace the truth and find God through it?

As it turned out, my translation ministry was easy compared to dealing with various aspects of Sepik Iwam culture that I believed wandered from our Creator’s design.

Their practice of polygamy concerned me. Similar to Old Testament Jewish custom, a Sepik Iwam man could marry his brother’s widow in order to care for her and her children. But because I was worried about what would happen to the widows if this option wasn’t available–and knew of no other cultural alternative–I never addressed the issue.

Then there were the 160 shamans–the doctors of the jungle–all capable of becoming demon possessed. How could I relate to them?

As I learned more about the shamans, I observed that their folk cures often involved making tiny incisions in their patients’ skin and then spitting and blowing into the wounds. That’s how they earned their respected name:Spitters.

I put my fears aside and tried involving the spitters in my Bible translation process. But nothing could have prepared me for their critiques of freshly translated Sepik Iwam Bible verses. Hearing Mark 8:22-23, they became especially surprised and animated at how Jesus healed the blind man by spitting on his eyes.

“Aiyoh! [Wow!],” one said. “Jesus must be the most powerful spitter! No spitter here has ever been able to cure a blind person!”

During the course of my 23 years among the Sepak Iwam people, I learned that the power of God’s Spirit can cut through all cultural and linguistic barriers–and that God’s Word can communicate to all people from all backgrounds.

Nearly all the spitters became Christians. How? God’s superior power convinced them. In fact, none of the few remaining shamans are able to become demon possessed within five miles of Hauna Village.

The polygamy issue? Gone. I don’t know how God did it, but married Sepik Iwam men continue to care for their deceased brothers’ wives–only they do it as brothers-in-law, not as husbands.

And those 14 sniffling teenage boys? They stuck with me for 23 years until the completion of the New Testament in the Sepik Iwam language. In the Hauna Village, they were the first Christians, the first readers, the first teachers–and later, six became pastors. All of them are church leaders.

And none of them use handkerchiefs.


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