When the Third Time Was Not A Charm

The smoke was getting thicker as the three men puffed repeatedly on their cigarettes while walking rapidly in a small circle around the fire pit in the center of the hut. In their hands were fragrant wild taro leaves that each man spun rapidly as he paced. The spinning leaves sounded like the fluttering of wings. One of the men stumbled and nearly fell. As he stumbled again, one foot went into the fire pit. The warnings of “Don’t stand up or you could cause the men to faint or die. Don’t allow the taro leaves to fall in the fire pit or the smell could cause the men to vomit,” kept buzzing through our minds. The singing grew louder and more intense. The rapid circuits, the whirling of the leaves, the flickering lights in the darkened hut, the singing and chanting swirled us into the midst of an ancient practice. It was the voices that had first alerted us and then intrigued us. Who was singing? Why were they singing? What were they saying?

Curiosity is a great attribute for a missionary doing language and culture study in Papua New Guinea. With 860 languages and nearly that many different cultures, there are so many things to learn. I was visiting Darryl and Becky Jordan in the Wuzarambya tribe to give them their language/culture checks. We had indulged in Becky’s great cooking and were sitting in their living room when the first strains reached our ears. Opening the window to hear more clearly, they discerned that the singing was coming from a family hut down the hill.

It was the home of a man, his two wives and his children. The man had been sick for quite a while and there had been three previous attempts at healing him. You see, in this tribe many people are believed to have the power of healing. They are witch doctors, yes, but the type of witch doctor you would want to see when you are very sick and the local health clinic has been unable to help you. Help is what he desperately needed because his health had deteriorated so much that he was no longer able to walk. These healers were from the clan of his two wives. Perhaps they would bring more skill and power than the previous ones.

Two young bamboo sections filled with water were leaning against the wall. Reaching behind me, one of the witch doctors pulled a machete out of the matted wall. His sudden movement so near to me caused a little alarm to well up inside of me. The water bamboo sections had been picked up and passed around seemingly for others to touch. Then, with quick motions, two of the witch doctors grabbed up the sections, held them over the heads of the wives and children, and slashed them with the machete while sprinkling cold water on the family members. The bamboo sections were then discarded. Two of the men went with fresh banana leaves to hold the sick man and the third took small bundles of fresh banana leaves and started the ritual of removing the demons of sickness and the objects that had caused the pain. Putting the leaves over the man’s stomach, he swirled them around and gradually drew them toward him in great earnest as if these unseen objects were a threat to him and others and needed to be handled with great caution. Pulling, pulling, pulling, making sounds like “sst, sst, sst” as if to entice a creature, down the sick man’s thigh, then past the knee, “sst, sst, sst” down to the ankle and off the toes, he grabbed the bundle tightly as if to allow nothing to escape. Removing the bundle a short distance, he slashed it several times with the sharp blade of the machete. He did this several times until sweat was rolling down his face. Then he switched to cane leaves repeating the pulling except this time he tied the removed object in the bundle of leaves and cast it aside.

We sat there for over three hours observing this ritual. The chanting and singing went on nearly non-stop from beginning to end. Sitting there it was hard to believe that these practices were still going on. I looked around the hut at the serious faces of the participants. I looked up into the cone-shaped roof that was ebony black from years of smoke from the fire. The bottom of the roof was shiny black; the middle section a dull black and the highest part was so black that I couldn’t see the peak. I was reminded of the age-old symbols of darkness and light. Sitting in our nice, well- lit homes, it’s hard to believe there are people in other parts of the world who live in such darkness -heathen darkness. We need people who are willing to follow the truth and carry the light to these dark places. Are you prepared to be one of those people?

Was the man healed? There was no apparent change the next morning when we went to visit him. The prince of darkness always promises, but never delivers. If they only knew “The Light of the World.”