New Tribes Mission Enters the Hamtai
In 1950 Chuck Driver was sent by New Tribes Mission to begin tribal work in the Territory of New Guinea. On arriving, he went to see the District Commissioner in Lae, the town on the north coast in what was then called Morobe District. Chuck explained to the official that he would like to locate among a group without a written language where he and his co-workers could reduce it to writing, teach literacy, start churches and do Bible translation work. The official told him of a tribe farther interior to the southeast of Bulolo.
The government referred to these small-statured people, some of whom barely come past my waist, as the Kukukuku people (pronounced as “cuckoo-cuckoo”). Their very name struck fear in the hearts of those who heard it. They had no other name at that time. We now call them the Hamtai people, because they originated way interior in the Hamtai area.
The Commissioner agreed to give Chuck a permit to live in the Watut area and to patrol and work in the uncontrolled, interior parts of the tribe. He made some interesting comments regarding the language. He had heard it and remarked to Chuck, “It is a very primitive language and has many strange sounds in it. It is so guttural sounding that I believe if you turned a bottle of Coke upside down and poured it out in front of a Kukukuku he would answer it!” Then to Chuck’s further amusement, knowing the official had not studied language like he had, he said, “Now, I doubt if you will find more than about 500 words in the language.” Of course Chuck and we were to learn that that amount hardly covers the names of grasses and other plants and trees. It doesn’t even start to number the various verb forms in this very complicated, well developed language, which was to give us all many trials of our faith.
So Chuck and Jean Driver settled near one of the Hamtai villages in the Watut Valley, the very edge of this vast tribal area. The early days of the work were truly pioneering days with many physical hardships. Later they were able to buy some permanent houses with metal roofs near an airstrip from a gold company that moved out of the area.