Stepped In It

By: Jim Tanner

Chapter One

That day is still so clear in my memory in spite of the years that have passed. As I came around the bend of a narrow path, I saw my first village in the steep mountains of the Highlands Region of The Territory of New Guinea and Papua, later named Papua New Guinea. An old woman stood staring at me and suddenly burst into action.

I was trying to keep up with the senior missionary who instantly became my hero, when he took off at a fast pace up an incline that looked like only a mountain goat could climb. It hadn’t been long since I left my home at sea level and landed in which would be my home for nearly fifty-two years. I had on a pair of jeans and a pair of hiking boots supplied by my new hero’s wife. In just a few seconds, I realized it wasn’t your regular walk in the park, and air was much thinner at over 5,000 feet above sea level. That started the breathing on my upward journey to quickly turn into a fight for survival. I was slipping and sliding, getting my feet wet at each stream we crossed, and gasping for air during my frequent intervals of what I called, “Looking at the scenery.” Did I mention that I was bent over during those times so I couldn’t see much scenery?

Occasionally, my hero would wait for me up the path, but he would disappear in a short time, which left me alone more times than I desired. At the first glance of me, the old woman in the village started wailing, doing a little dancing motion while her shrieks increased in volume. I do remember that she was topless with very little else on. She made her way closer and closer to me, and I thought about running away, but my hero was out of sight and I was still gasping for breath. As she drew closer, she was holding one breast, flapping it in my face and making groping gestures at my privates. The fingers on her hands were like stubs. I found out that it was their custom to cut off a finger joint when a family member died, to show their sorrow. She then lifted one leg off the ground, and increased the volume of her wailing. Some have asked me, “Why didn’t you take off running?” To which I answer, “It’s hard to run on one leg, and besides I didn’t know where to run.”

Reading her body language from my American culture, I was pretty sure she was going to rape me and then eat me. I was in a total panic. I had stepped in it-a new country, culture, language, geography, and bewilderment. When I was without ideas to escape, my hero came down the path to check up on me. He must have chuckled under his breath as he patted the old woman on her back and kept saying a phrase over and over to her. I wasn’t sure what he said, but the woman let go of my leg and her breast long enough for me to get in front of my hero with a new found motivation to keep up with him in spite of my gasping.

Later, in another village, I was sitting in a group of people who had gathered to hear my hero teach them something from the Bible. It was in an unknown language to me, but I tried to be attentive, when I felt the back of my shirt being lifted up, and the roughest hand that I had ever felt started rubbing my back. Another surprise from my stalker, but I felt safer in the crowd.

By this time, some of you are probably thinking, “How or why I stepped into this new country with so many strange and different things?” I guess the simple answer would be, “You have to step out your comfort zone to start a new life. The simple answer for why we would go is that it was our calling.” (More about that later).

Later, I found out that my alleged ‘stalker’ was actually filled with unbridled joy when she saw me for the first time. (I get that a lot). She and her tribe believed that when people died, they go to the place of the dead, but can occasionally come back. Why the wailing, groping and breast face-slapping? It was her way of trying to communicate to me that I was her deceased child, whom she had suckled and lost in sickness. I had finally returned. Although it didn’t make sense to me how a black child could come back as a grown white person, it sure did to her and the animistic people of her tribe. (Animism is the belief that there are many unseen spirits who control the world which need to be kept happy by prayers, offerings and following rituals. It’s the prevailing belief of many people in around the world).

Why would my wife and I step into this wildly different country with over 860 languages and be willing to experience culture shock over and over again? To be separated by 9,000 miles from everyone we knew and loved? It was our calling. God asked us to go to Papua New Guinea to spread the good news among her people.

A few other shocks that week are also vivid in our memories. We touched down at the small town of Goroka in December 1969. A man met us at the airport, handed us a key and drove us to the mission guest house there. We managed to get our luggage and two children out of the car, and he quickly departed. We soon realized we had a few questions with no one to ask them to. Where could we buy food to eat, was the water in the galvanized rain tank okay to drink, or did it need to be boiled? etc., etc. We boiled it to be on the safe side, but couldn’t drink it until it cooled down. I took our daughter, Lydia, by the hand and walked down the road to a row of stores until we found one that sold food. There were a lot of people sitting around who were staring curiously at our very white skin (we had come out of winter so our skin was very pale). They seemed to all speak at once in foreign tongues. As we were ready to go into the store, I noticed small cages of guinea pigs which were on sale for breeding or consumption. Poor little things! We bought some food for supper and a bit for breakfast and returned to the guest house before dark, to eat and drink our warm water.

We spent two nights there before being picked up by some fellow missionaries and taken to the mission headquarters about an hour’s drive away. At least we had people who could answer our questions there. Enter more shocks. We were looking through the cupboards to see if there was any food and we saw a half-opened can of melon jam. Being curious and open to new tastes, I pried the lid open for a look. It happened so fast, I didn’t even get a chance to see the jam when a huge cockroach leaped out the tin, causing me an undesired adrenalin rush and a loud young female sounding shriek coming out of me! Come on! It was our first encounter with the large insects that lived in most houses. Needless to say, our desire to taste melon jam evaporated as fast as the disappearance of the roach!

The small guest house was a duplex with a shared shower room between the two sides, and a shared outdoor toilet which stood behind the house. It was a slight step up from a pit latrine, and we were assaulted by the stench of the bucket that was directly below the toilet seat. As the bucket filled, we were told that the bucket had to be taken out and poured where all the other buckets on the station were emptied. I had to be extra cautious as I walked down the plank that led to an open pit, where I had to pour out the contents of my bucket without spilling anything. I slowly turned around hoping I wouldn’t slip off the board. I then had to wash out the bucket and return it to its place in the outhouse. Thankfully, it didn’t fill up again during our short stay. Another thing we had to learn was how to use a “bucket shower.” It was a bucket with a shower head screwed into the bottom. You had to fill the bucket with water and pull it to a position by a rope on a pulley until it was over your head. You had to slowly unscrew the shower head, and the water would start dripping out of the bucket. When you finished your shower, you would screw the shower head tight again. It took a bit of getting used to, and we often ran out of water while trying to rinse off the soap. It was another new experience, but not nearly as bad as the monster cockroach or the putrid potty bucket.

Communications were very poor in those days before radios and telephones made their way into remote areas; commonly called ‘Bush locations.” Word had reached our leaders that a missionary about twelve hours’ drive away, on dirt roads, had two sicknesses at once, and had been taken to a small hospital near the town of Bulolo. They wanted us to go relieve him of his duties until he recovered. We stopped at the town of Lae, to sleep for the night, and continued our trip early the next morning. The place we were heading towards was outside the town in a bush location. We had to leave the truck on one side of the Watut River, cross a swinging bridge that spanned the river, and walk down the other side of the bridge. The bridge was two boards wide with a wire on each side to hold on to if needed. It was a challenge with our two children and other belongings, but there were many local people to help us. Fortunately, the formerly sick missionary was waiting for us and he drove us up to our final destination for the day. The rest of that day was a blur, but I do remember being told that I would have to drive back to town to buy supplies for the missionaries and for the little store they had to sell things to the local people. My experience as a supply buyer was nil, but I was a healthy, willing person who was the only one available to do it. It seems like we snagged a lot of jobs through the years because we were willing to help out. I did remember the town was on the other side of a massive pine forest divided into sections and I had no clue how to find it.

Fortunately, two missionaries needed to go to town the next day and kindly showed me the way. My experience with 4-wheel drive vehicles was also nil, and did I mention they drive on the opposite side of the road there? The town was small, and I was able to make my way around to purchase the items on the list, go to the bank, and pick up mail at the post office. After that initial trip, they sent a man to accompany me to town and help me load the truck, which was a little difficult since I didn’t speak a language that he understood. That started my use of hand motions to communicate to him. I would point at him, point at the box, make a lifting gesture, and you guessed it, pointed at the truck. It worked, but it gave me great motivation to learn the trade language, Melanesian Pidgin English.

We noticed that every woman we saw was pregnant. Some were topless in those days so it left nothing to guessing. After a while, it looked like the men and children were also pregnant. Hey it was a foreign country, but not a new planet! What was going on? We seemed to ask a lot of stupid questions in the early days, but we were told that there was a lot of malaria in that area, and that if people got it often, along with parasites and malnutrition, they developed swollen spleens and extended tummies which made them look pregnant. Later, we noticed some of the long-term missionaries had that same rotund look. Kathy joined the others as her tummy was getting bigger with our third child who we called ‘God’s farewell gift.’

Having arrived in December, Christmas was just around the corner, but there were no shopping malls, no Christmas music and of course no snow or pretty lights. The people didn’t seem to celebrate that special day. A minor culture shock, but it left us feeling a little left out.

The senior missionary asked us to go visit a teacher and his family at a village school, and then report back to him. His intent was to get us out with the people and help us to adjust a little to their way of life. We took our sleeping bags, mosquito nets and a bit of food for our host. They had a small grass roofed hut on stilts where we would be sleeping so we set up our beds before it got dark. The beds were single sized, but we agreed to split up the kids and each sleep with one of them. Our hostess cooked over a fire, and the food was delicious. We visited around the fire until after dark and said goodnight to the little family and went to our bedroom for a peaceful sleep. Ha. Little did we know what we’d face that night. As the door was opened, and the light of our little kerosene lamp shone inside, there was a strange, and what you could call a ‘moving sight’ for us. Hundreds of giant cockroaches were all over the walls. As a protective husband, I took off my flipflops and started killing the invaders right and left. Most of them managed to escape death, and hid away in the walls and grass roof. Our host apologized, but probably thought, “Another green missionary.” During the night, we had additional visitors, rats. As we lit the lamp, to see what was making the strange noises, the rats scattered quickly into their hiding places. When we turned the lamp off, they returned. So, the dim light ended up keeping both species of our enemies in hiding. The family was so kind and our first experiences in the village were, well, mostly good.

We were at the Watut about nine months, and learned many things about building relationships with the missionaries from America, Australia, and New Zealand, and of course the local people. Needless to say, it was very interesting learning about the local culture. In a group of people, you could never tell who the married couples were. They never held hands, or sat together, or ever showed any signs of affection in public, nor did they use words of endearment with each other. Overall, they were small people and ninety-percent of them walked in bare feet, and breast feeding in public was the norm.

The senior missionary asked me to go inspect another school several hours hike away. I could be wrong, but it seemed the path was all up hill, leaving me breathless. There was a creek which flowed down the valley, and we had to cross it about seven times. The senior missionary had asked me what shoes I would wear on the hike, and I proudly told him I had the latest recommended footwear, Chippawa Boots. He strongly recommended that I wear something lighter and more comfortable, but I assured him that I had worn them quite a bit on Akron, Ohio’s streets and that they were well broken in.
That was a major blunder. (Make a note: Listen to the senior missionary!) About an hour up the path, I felt my boot rubbing a blister on my heel. I could see it too, because every time we crossed the creek, I would take my boots and socks off to keep them dry when we forded the water. It was one of those times when my mind shouted, “Hey stupid! You should have listened to the part about not wearing the boots!” I did have a pair of flip flops in my pack which were also not broken in. As if things couldn’t get worse, it started raining and drenched me and my guide. One time, I was so tired and just sat on a rock in the rain, trying to transport myself to a better place. I finally arrived at the school just before dark, tired, muddy, and thirsty. There was no clean water for me to drink so one of the students took a bowl outside and caught some of the water falling off the roof. Because they used the house for cooking, the ceiling and roof were coated with smoke and as a result my drink of water ended up slightly brown and smokey tasting. What a wimp! My first hike seemed like a miserable failure, but I learned some valuable lessons and got to meet some school kids who have remained life-long friends. Did I mention the hike back home was like a slippery slope with flip flops on?

Our promised income from our only supporting church was $100 a month. As a result, we ate local foods from the open markets. We started eating local greens which changed Kathy’s life. She had been troubled with fainting spells and had to get iron injections, but after a steady diet of the greens and other local foods, her iron count rose, and she never had to get another shot. Eating local foods had another huge effect which we could never have imagined early in our time there. Later, I would often go on surveys to areas where there were no churches; which usually meant they had not heard the gospel. I wrote up reports so that new missionaries could see possible locations for them to allocate. There was no way we could carry all the food we would need for our treks, but one of the great things on the plus side of the culture of the PNG people was that they were hospitable, and you could always count on them to provide you with food and a place to sleep. Many times, they were surprised that the ‘white man’ was eating their food, and most of the time I enjoyed it. At other times we whispered that missionary prayer, “Lord, help me get it down and keep it down.” If I had been accustomed to eating only foreign foods, I could have been very offensive by rejecting their hospitality. Thank you, Lord, for the lessons we learned while we were poor.