The Bena Bena is an animistic tribe. They believe that everything is controlled by spirits. There is a spirit that causes their gardens to produce well or not to produce well. There is a spirit that brings the rain or holds the rain back. They have spirits that possess their houses, stones, trees and animals. The spirit world is just very, very alive to them. They live in constant fear at night of what they call the poison man. They believe he is a sorcerer that is going to work his magic on them. They think they are going to die or that trees are going to fall on them when they’re in the garden. They are afraid to go pick coffee in their coffee gardens because they think someone will attack them with sorcery. They seem happy on the outside, but once you get to know them, it’s a life of constant fear.
Their traditional religion is based on trying to appease the spirits and saying and doing the right thing so that the spirits will give them a good life. This is so very unsuccessful. They have to say the right thing in almost any activity of life. They have to know how to say it, know the rituals and perform these rituals to appease spirits. They live in fear that if they don’t say the right thing at the right time, then the spirits will not be appeased and will not bless them.
The sorcerers they believe in are actually real people. Anyone can hire a poison man to come and work his sorcery on an enemy and cause him/her to die. There are various ways they can do it. One way they talk about is that a sorcerer can stretch out an earthworm next to a house at night and say a few words causing the person inside to need to go to the bathroom. When the person goes outside into the dark relieve him or herself, the sorcerer throws a stick over the person’s head. This supposedly puts the person into a sort of a trance causing him/her to now be controlled by the sorcerer. They talk about how he can, not in a physical way but in a supernatural way, take out someone’s intestines, tie them up in knots and put them back in so that bile problems occur. Supposedly, this would eventually cause death because of the person’s inability to excrete waste. Another way is that nails or pieces of rusted wire could be driven into the head causing sickness or death.
Once, a villager’s teenage son came to the Foster’s house very, very scared because some dogs were chasing something around their gardens. He was convinced it was a poison man coming to get him. They sat and talked with the boy for about 45 minutes. When it started to rain, the boy was relieved as he said that the poison man wouldn’t come out because if he gets wet, his poison wouldn’t be any good. Sometimes poison men travel in groups of three or four. If they have to cross a river or stream, the others carry the man with the poison across the water. This is so he never gets wet, not even his feet, because it would nullify his poison. They say there are other sorcerers who have the ability to come as spirits in storms to bring what would be like a tornado. They would be able to rip the roofs off of houses, knock down houses and break off tree branches and drop them on peoples’ heads. These spirits come during storms to attack those that have upset them or done bad things to them. This makes it crucial to be nice to everyone. If you are not, then they can hire a poison man to work sorcery on you. In addition, if you give someone an angry look and he/she gets sick, they can blame you for working poison on him or her. So, even in their day to day relationships, there is a lot of fear. You don’t know who you might upset causing them to retaliate against you.
Challenges in bringing the message of the Gospel
There are several challenges involved in working in a tribal ministry. There is widespread use of Pidgin English in PNG, which has a limited vocabulary of approximately 4,000 words. It was developed so that tribal people could trade back and forth. However, it is estimated that tribal languages have an estimated vocabulary of around 60,000 – 80,000 words. Pidgin does not have spiritual terminology, so there is a major language barrier in evangelizing to these tribes.
In addition, because the tribal people lack proper teaching, they cannot make sense of their animistic beliefs in relation to the Christian beliefs of the missionaries. Therefore, they kind of mesh them together and it just becomes major confusion rather than a “setting free” as the gospel promises. For example, they would take the idea of what the Bible says about God and say, “Now we have to appease God” instead of the spirits. They would become concerned with saying the right prayers so that their gardens would grow and would try to do the right rituals to please God. To them, it is just another God; another form of works. There are some religions that would come in and say that you can’t eat pig, you have to stop drinking beer, and have to stop chewing that mild narcotic called beetlenut. So, it’s just another religious list of do’s and don’ts that fits right into their animistic beliefs. That is not really the religion of Christianity, the truth of the gospel.