In the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea a few tribal men quickly gathered around a fire pit inside the spirit hut, eager to hear the news. “I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” said a dark-skinned muscular young man named Yoku. His eyes pierced through the smoky haze to the younger, thin-shouldered man who had arrived from the nearest town with the news. “Tell us everything.” Lefa’s eyes darted around to savor the eager attention of his relatives. “The womwe have received our request for help, and are going to fly here to meet with us.” Yoku sucked air into his mouth through closed teeth, making a hissing sound to show amazement. “Surely they will bring their medicine. And the thorn.” “I hope they bring a machete,” Yoku’s pre-teen brother, Eyaka, blurted. “Or clothes, or maybe a cooking pot,” echoed their grey haired father. “I can’t wait to see a womwe for myself!” Yoku said. “But I wonder if.” His sentence was interrupted by an uncomfortable laugh from Lefa. “I want to see one too,” he said, “but the thought of them coming here scares me. I hear their skin is ghastly pale, like the most fearsome spirits. I wonder if they’re even human.”
Late that afternoon, as the high-pitched whine of the cicada bugs signaled impending darkness, Loyu, the Patriarch of the Pandanus leaf roofed spirit house addressed the group of 30 or so men and boys who had arrived from scattered villages to hear the news. “This is it,” he said, “the moment we have been waiting for.” Loyu paused looking around at the familiar men who had gathered, most of them relatives. “We have lived far too long under the darkness of the jungle canopy, but now the womwe are coming to live with us to bring the light.” The words were barely out of his mouth when there was a hissing sound of surprise and excitement from every direction. “For many seasons,” Loyu continued, “Sefen has been hiking across the mountains requesting the womwe come. And Samon has sent letters from town asking for their help. Finally they have answered our invitation and.” Loyu paused for effect and looked from face to face. “Next week they will arrive.” The room exploded with excitement. The men fired questions at Loyu from every corner of the house. He laughed, enjoying the attention, and paused to take a home-grown tobacco leaf from his string bag to roll a new cigarette. “Are they coming in their helicopter?” “Will they bring medicine?” “Is this when we will get the iron axes from the spirits?” “What if they try to steal our gardens and houses and wives?” “How can we know what their intentions are?” “What if they turn into snakes at night and eat us?” The last question brought an uncomfortable silence, raising a fear that seemed to intertwine with the ever-present haze from the embers of the four fire pits. Finally, Sefen broke the silence. “I know there are risks,” he said. He cleared his throat and continued. “It’s true, we don’t know much about them, but I don’t think we need to worry. My brother on the other side of the mountains says the womwe that live with him at Malamant have never turned into the spirit snakes. He says they do nothing to harm the villagers.”

Beating drums to the spirits

Sefen paused as a few boys entered through the open doorway and dropped big chunks of broken firewood on the slatted floor, sending a sleeping dog yelping toward a corner. Sefen took a couple of the smaller chunks to the nearest fire pit and placed them among the embers, blowing gently. After a few seconds, the dry moss on the bark burst into flames, casting a bright glow on the nearby faces. “It’s like this,” Sefen continued. “Do we want to stay in the darkness in which our ancestors have left us trapped? We can plainly see the results! We don’t have the power to stop death like they did. We have new graves everywhere, from the peaks of the mountains down to the Taiya River valley. The Hewa used to be a strong people. We had many tall warriors but now the darkness has overcome us.” “It’s true,” said Yoku. “Now look at us. We are only a few people, like mangy dogs in our little hamlets, vulnerable to the spirits who fly around in the darkness like giant bats eating us one by one.” Old man Loyu shuddered and dropped a larger section of log on the flames causing a shower of sparks to burst upward, bouncing like hundreds of drunk fireflies off the underside of the firewood drying rack above the fire pit. “Yes,” he said. “The womwe are our only hope for survival. We don’t have any magic as strong as their shiny thorn to stop death. Our shamans only wish they had that kind of power. I say we let them live with us.” “Let’s give them land,” Wash said, “so they will have a place for their houses and gardens.” “And let’s give them whatever else they ask for,” said Sefen. “If we make them happy, surely they will stay. Surely their presence will bring us into the light that our ancestors spoke of.” The boy, Eyaka, jumped to his feet and began bouncing up and down yelling, “I’m going to get an axe! I’m going to get an axe!” The whole house burst into laughter. The rest of the boys jumped up and began bobbing up and down in excitement, hollering for the things they hoped to receive. Their spirits were warmed, not so much by the now roaring fire, but by the hope that their lives would be better. Soon death would end as the Hewa burst forward into a new era of unending light.
When the Hewa requested missionaries come to live with them, they were expecting the God of the missionaries would bring an end to sickness and death, and also provide an endless supply of free material possessions. Later, when the missionaries flew into the jungle on a helicopter to speak with the tribal leaders through interpreters, they did not realize that when the villagers told them they wanted the missionary to bring the Light of God’s Words, their dreams were antithetical to what the missionaries were planning to teach. The result was an epic clash of expectations that brought far more danger and drama than either group could have dreamed.

–Excerpt taken from Canopy of Darkness, available at, coupon code “hewa”