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I was a communications specialist for Wycliffe International and its partners from 2005-09.

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Posts about papua new guinea

“The Unit” botches portrayal of PNG

Wednesday, April 4, 2007, 10:28 pm

Before this week, I’d never seen an episode of CBS’s “The Unit,” a show about US special forces operatives and their families. But last night, I happened to flip past the channel, and something caught my ear. Was that woman speaking … Tok Pisin?

Yes, she was, or something like it. But soon, the local news station cut in to deliver a severe weather bulletin, which (thanks to a slow-moving thunderstorm over Fort Worth) lasted the rest of the show. So today, I watched the episode, “Outsiders,” online.

As the show begins, “Mendi, Papua New Guinea” appears over a shot of rainforest. Are we about to get a glimpse into the world I inhabited for nearly a year? I wish! Almost everything that could be wrong is wrong. From the opening scenes to the bizarre conclusion, the nasty surprises never stop.

First, Mendi is a real town in PNG. It is the capital of Southern Highlands Province, and it’s located in a mountain valley. Now, I haven’t actually been to Mendi, but I’ve been pretty close, and I’ve been to several towns like it. I can tell you that it’s nothing even close to the flat, lowland, crocodile-infested rainforest that “The Unit” portrays.

Sure, PNG has flat lowlands where crocs live, but Mendi is not one of those places.

The first “Papua New Guinean” we meet is a dark-skinned “priestess,” whose features, accent, and very long hair identify her immediately as an African woman or a Caribbean woman of African descent. There is simply no way this woman could be a Melanesian.

Things deteriorate further as she begins to speak what is supposed to be Tok Pisin, and one of the soldiers answers her. Tok Pisin, which I speak and understand, is spoken fairly rapidly and often sounds lively and animated. But the priestess and the other “New Guineans” speak with a slow, idiotic cadence reminiscent of Tonto (”That right, Kimosabe.”) or Tarzan. Some of the pidgin is actually accurate, but it is pronounced strangely throughout, sometimes with accents on the wrong syllables. Other times, though, the actors speak only partial sentences, or they do not say what the subtitles indicate they are saying.

The pidgin spoken by the “elder,” seems to be half pidgin (badly pronounced) and half gibberish. Some Papua New Guineans actually mix pidgin and tok ples (the local language) together in a single sentence, and so I wondered if that’s what the elder is supposed to be doing. The problem with that theory, though, is that the one soldier can understand him perfectly, and there’s no way he’d be able to understand the local language.

In Papua New Guinea, drivers drive on the left side of the road. Cars have their steering wheels on the right, the opposite of cars here in America. But when the two soldiers are driving along a dark road, guess which side the driver is sitting on? Yep, the left. Come on, folks! Thirty seconds of research could have cleared that one up for you.

Oh, and then there’s the kava that the elder and Jackie (a young woman who is also very clearly of African descent, not Melanesian) give to one of the soldiers. Kava is used as a recreational and ceremonial drug in many parts of the Pacific, but PNG is not one of those places. I crisscrossed the country for months and never once encountered it or heard it discussed. If you want to find kava, go to Vanuatu or Polynesia, but forget Mendi.

Irritations aside, it is the central plot that I find most distressing and outrageous. Partway through the show, we find out that the villagers are putting one of the soldiers through a sort of initiation ritual. They poison him, cut him, brand him with a burning stick, and send in a giant (where’d they get a giant??) to beat him up.

Then, they send him into a shack with a painted up woman who seduces him, muttering some nonsense about needing to become one.

I lack words to express how ludicrous and offensive this is. It is true that some Melanesian cultures have initiation rites that include drugs, torture, isolation, mutilation, and sexual acts. These days, though, such practices are much less common or have disappeared completely. Either way, the idea that the people would inflict such things on a stranger who stumbled into their village is beyond absurd. The whole thing appears to have been cooked up to to titillate a salacious and gullible American public.

Were there more things wrong? Yeah. The drums are wrong; the clothes are over the top. But I think you’re getting the idea.

Did they do anything right? Well….

Probably the truest thing this episode portrays is the fear that many Melanesians have of evil spirits. Once, Jackie refers to the missionaries who taught her English, but it is clear that the people of her village put their faith in sorcery, not the Christian God. In fact, they seem totally ignorant of the meaning behind the cross tattooed on one soldier’s breast. The people are afraid of their neighbors, and they are afraid of the spirits. They attempt to control circumstances with herbs, amulets, rituals, and hokey hand-waving ceremonies. Sadly, this gives at least a hint of the spiritual state of many Papua New Guineans, though usually there is some sort of syncretism with (rather than total ignorance of) Christianity.

Papua New Guinea is an amazing place. It is home to millions of people, each with a story to tell. Some would make you laugh, and some would break your heart. There’s enough beauty, drama, kindness, horror, intrigue, grief, and warmth to fill script after script after script.

But whoever wrote this show didn’t care about that. Instead, they served up a hodge-podge of stereotypes, misinformation, and total, complete stupidity. I thought we had moved beyond the days of gibbering South Pacific “natives” as portrayed in the otherwise-hilarious “McHale’s Navy.” Apparently, I was wrong.

CBS, you botched this one bad. Shame on you.

Waima songs and language tidbits

Monday, February 5, 2007, 10:44 am

Last week, I finally downloaded some digital audio recordings I’d made in PNG, and I found some things you might enjoy hearing.

In August last year, I spent one week in the Waima village Ere'ere, a couple hours up the coast from Port Moresby. (See my first post about the Waima people.) I soon discovered that the Waima language uses very few sounds; in fact, the language does not have a “d” sound, a “v” sound, or a short “i” sound. As you may have noticed, that means that my name is virtually unpronounceable in Waima! Now of course, many Waima people have learned English and other languages, so they have become familiar with these sounds. Some even use English names like Donald or Colin. But it was clear that the people were more comfortable with Waima names. Upon arrival, I was christened Anabe.

Though Waima lacks many of the sounds that are important in other languages, it does have one sound of which native English speakers are almost completely unaware. It’s called the glottal stop — that funny little thing you do in your throat when you say something like “uh-oh!” Had you ever noticed that was there? Probably not. In Waima, however, the presence or absence of glottal stops (written as apostrophes) can change the meaning of a word. For example, aniani (food) and 'ani'ani (a small marsupial) are identical except for two glottal stops in the second word.

So in Waima, we can have an entire sentence composed of only four phonemes: 'Ani'ani aniani nianiani. “Ani” rhymes with “Ronnie.” Try reading the sentence aloud as fast as you can. What does it mean? 'Ani'ani is a small marsupial, and aniani is food, as I said above. The last word in the sentence is aniani again, but this time it’s being used as a verb, and it has the affix ni-, which indicates continuing action. A natural-sounding English translation might read, “The small marsupial is eating the food.” Note the word order of the original, however. The subject (the animal) is first, the object (the food) is in the middle, and the verb (”is eating”) is at the end, which is often the way sentences are arranged in Waima.

Now, for the music (had you given up on me yet?):

This first recording is one verse from a Western-style hymn in the Waima language. During the chorus, you will hear the phrase obia paka namona repeated a couple of times. Obia paka is an expression that means “Lord”; it comes from obia (chief) and paka (big). Many Scriptural concepts are expressed using analogies to traditional Waima leadership roles, where the chief is Peacemaker. So obia paka means “Lord,” and namona means “good.” Listen to the Waima hymn (01:11, 1.08 MB).

The hymns were beautiful, but the prophet songs were what really captured my heart during my visit. Prophet songs have haunting melodies and complex harmonies — I’d never heard anything like them. I learned that the musical form came from Polynesia with early missionaries. (Polynesians from Samoa, the Cook Islands, and other island groups were some of the early Christian missionaries to PNG.) The songs often tell Bible stories, and during Christmas and other holidays, people will gather to sing them all night long, which must be fantastic. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a good recording of a prophet song. This sample (which comes in in the middle of the song) will give you only the tiniest taste of what they are like: prophet song snippet (00:39, 617 KB).

To read more about prophet songs and early Polynesian missionaries, you can download Volume 6 Number 1 of the Journal of International Development and Cooperation (a 2 MB PDF) and scroll down to page 150, where the article “Polynesian Hymns in Papua” begins. The section dealing specifically with prophet songs begins on page 154.

Younger Waima people have learned to love more contemporary Western music styles, complete with keyboards and bass guitars. This can be a source of conflict with the elders, just as it can here at home. Perhaps you have noticed that all the styles I’ve mentioned came either from the West or the East (Polynesia), and you may be wondering whatever became of traditional Waima music. The answer is that it has died out almost completely. Apparently, truly traditional Waima music is hardly ever performed and is not even liked by many people today. Their tastes, like ours, continue to evolve in a changing world.

Goodbye to PNG

Saturday, November 4, 2006, 5:13 pm

“Mate! Back again,” said the big Aussie. “The human yo-yo.”

Today was the third or fourth time I’ve run into Mike at the missionary guesthouse here in Moresby. His greeting sums up rather well the way I’ve felt for the last five months.

Since the first day of June, I have not been in any one place longer than 14 days at a time — usually much less. Almost every time I went back to Ukarumpa, somebody thought I was a visitor and asked if I needed any help. I’ve been in and out of Port Moresby at least seven times since June and suggested that the guesthouse managers should just charge me a monthly rate. I have hiked through mountains and swamps on my own two legs, and I’ve traveled by dugout canoes, small boats with outboard motors, a ship, cars, trucks, vans, taxis, public motor vehicles, bicycles, planes, and a helicopter. I’ve taken 32 flights in everything from a Boeing 747 to a Cessna 206.

Since April, I have seen every province in this nation save one, which I visited in 2005. I have visited at least 22 of Papua New Guinea’s language communities since March and talked with people from many more. If that sounds like a big number, consider that it is somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the languages spoken in PNG.

In addition to Papua New Guineans, I have interacted personally with people from Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Kenya, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Latvia.

And why this marathon — why this yo-yo-like activity that sometimes left me too burned out to climb back up the string?

I was thinking again today about the Bamu people, whom I visited in July. The flow of the river on which they live changes direction four times each day, as salty tides rush in from the Gulf of Papua. Except for one, all of their villages are flooded regularly. Their world is one of mud and water, and if they can’t quite believe that God separated the sea from the dry land, nobody can blame them.

They live with malaria, fungal skin diseases, and at times, hunger. But even more oppressive is the spiritual darkness in which so many of the Bamus live. “Their base state is fear,” explain translators Phil and Chris Carr. Some of the Bamus have felt evil spirits come to them at night, pressing them until they couldn’t breathe. Many burn their hair and fingernail clippings, lest someone should find them and use them to work deadly sorcery. Fear of the spirits. Fear of each other. Fear because they do not know the freedom they could have as God’s children.

Sometimes, I’ve forgotten why I do this work. I need times like today when I remember.

In just a few hours, I will board a plane to leave this country. I’m eager to go home again, to see people, taste foods, visit places, and hear sounds that I’ve missed. I’m eager too to begin telling the stories of people like the Bamu when I pick up work in Dallas. And I have to be honest: I’m eager to leave some of the strains and discomforts I feel in a place so different from my own.

But I will miss the sound of praise songs by the fire, so beautiful that you almost ache. I will miss low flights over spectacular peaks and gushing waterfalls. I will miss many people whom I’ve come to know and love, and I will miss friendly smiles and eyebrows raised in greeting. I will miss cream crackers and pineapples, but I will not miss fried bananas.

What happens when you leave your heart in too many different places?

"Living Word in Papua New Guinea"

Saturday, October 21, 2006, 2:59 pm

One of my primary responsibilities over the last several weeks has been the production of a 12-page booklet called Living Word in Papua New Guinea. Regular readers may remember my mention of a four-phase communications strategy several months ago. Living Word is Phase 2 of that strategy.

I’ve done most of the writing for Living Word, and I’ve worked closely on the design with Michael Jones (who also did the layout for our Post-Courier piece). Carle, June, and their team are working out many of the printing and distribution logistics in Dallas, and I’ve been marketing the booklet and assembling address lists for distribution.

Demand for Living Word has been greater than I anticipated. So far, it looks as if we’ll be distributing more than 24,000 booklets in virtually every US state and countries on every continent except Antarctica. Wycliffe Finland wants to translate the booklet and distribute it in Finland.

If you would like to order some copies of Living Word, send me an email. We could also use help with mailing and distribution, so if you live near Dallas, Texas, and would like to volunteer a Saturday to stuff envelopes or slap labels on packages, let me know!


Living Word is at the printer now and should be ready for distribution in a couple of weeks.

Abau New Testament dedication

Friday, October 20, 2006, 11:59 pm


The Abau people live along the Sepik River and its tributaries in extreme western PNG. Their remote homeland is accessible only by plane — or by many days of travel along the labyrinthine waterways.


October 12 was a day of great celebration for the Abau people. It was the day they received the New Testament in their own language.


Arjen and Maija Lock have lived among the Abau people for over 20 years, working with them to translate the New Testament and set up schools for children. They have also helped to set up courses for adult literacy, theological education, Christian families, and many other practical skills.


As men carried the New Testaments down the river and up the hill to the celebration grounds, people along the way bowed in thanksgiving and reverence, murmuring prayers of exaltation to God.


Hundreds of Abau speakers attended the event, and some visitors even came from a neighboring group of people — once the enemies of the Abau. Abau villages are widely scattered, so some people left their homes the day before the celebration and paddled for hours along the river to reach this place.


Olavi Rintala, representing Maija Lock’s church in Finland, was one of many speakers during the dedication. Arjen, originally from the Netherlands, interpreted Olavi’s speech from Finnish into Abau. Arjen and Maija are both fluent in Dutch, Finnish, English, Tok Pisin, and Abau, and they used every conceivable combination of those languages during dedication day!


As the time drew near to bring out the New Testaments, people danced and sang with evident excitement. Here, the women dance behind a box containing the ceremonial first New Testament.


Arjen and Obow Inaru both weep as they receive the first New Testament. Obow is the team’s senior translator, and he compared himself to Simeon, expressing his thankfulness that God had let him live through severe illnesses and accidents to see this day.


I saw tears on many faces as Obow held that first New Testament high. Some people stood; others knelt and raised their hands or bowed their heads in deep emotion.


So many people crowded the stage to purchase their New Testaments that somebody heard it start to crack. As I walked back and forth across the dedication grounds, I saw men, women, and children looking through their New Testaments for the first time. What an amazing sight.